Why is it that time and time again we are ill prepared for entirely predictable events? We know that giving birth and having an infant in the house will be all consuming and exhausting, but still feel surprised to find it to actually be so. Freelancers, consultants, contract workers and artists, are serial professional monogamists, yet still experience disorientation at the end of each gig. It stands to reason that (if we’re lucky) our parents will age. Yet, with each incremental stage of their decline we feel ourselves breathless and floundering. It’s in our best interest to be able to feel frightened or sad (lack of affect is a sign of serious trouble!) but why do we also feel “caught off guard?”
Nobody likes surprises (which is why surprise parties are only fun for the people planning them.) One of Mr. Rogers‘ most insightful and comforting songs was I Like To Be Told. He understood that children, with no frame of reference, find most of life surprising and unsettling. But we grown-ups are supposed to be pretty well versed in the vagaries of life. Of course events which could never be foreseen (both good and bad) occur, but it’s not those that leave us feeling as if we “really should have a better handle on this.”
Could it be that being truly conscious and cognizant of future hurdles and hardships is just not a pleasant way to live? Would being at full boyscout readiness at all times rob us of the joys of spontaneity and hopefulness in life? That could be the answer, if in fact cynics and pessimists find themselves in ship shape when things go a bit awry. Does a gloomy Gus face a parent’s accident, illness or decline with an attitude of “finally! something I’m good at!” Maybe.
What is really at the heart of the issue is that of mastery. We feel caught off guard because of the novelty of the event in our own life. Yes, we know the event is inevitable, but until we’ve tackled it head on and survived, we feel uncertain. Life tilting events, by their very nature are not extremely repetitive (if you’re lucky) so there is little chance for mastery. With each of these events (illness, job loss, death, etc.) we feel as insecure as we did as children, yet the situation calls for us being our most adult. The solution to our feelings of helplessness and insecurity is not to wish for more opportunities to develop mastery. What we can do is remember that we know enough to do the very best we can do. We’ve experienced bumps in the road before; this is not our first time at the rodeo if you will. Hurdles are just that; hurdles. There is quite a distance between each one (otherwise hurdles would be called bridges.) When the floundering sensation becomes too much, never underestimate the restorative powers of a cup of tea, and a little Mr. Rogers.
It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.
It’s such a happy feeling: You’re growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say,
‘I think I’ll make a snappy new day.’
It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling,
The feeling you know that we’re friends. (Fred Rogers,1967)