What Was the Best Part of Your Terrible Day?

We’ve all had that day. The one that begins with the horrible realization that you have overslept, and then proceeds to the coffee machine malfunctioning, an angry email from the boss about a project that is running 6 months behind, progresses to your getting stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam (that you usually avoid because your alarm gets you up to be on the road before the chaos of rush hour), and results in spilling drive-through coffee down your shirt. This is the day when the local sewage main ruptures and begins spewing waste into your basement which you find upon your return home as you stand in a foot of filth, calculating the cost of this to your already tight budget.

If you haven’t had that day, you’ve had your version of it. So let me ask you, what was the best part of that day?

I know, you think I am insane. You think I am one of those happy, cheerful people with framed posters of inspirational quotes against a beautiful natural scene hanging on my wall. I assure you I am not. I like sarcasm and snark and have at times enjoyed the nectar of my own despair.

But several years ago while taking a class on positive psychology (an area of study that was in many ways contrary to my default settings), I decided to take one of the practical suggestions from the literature. Because I am a mother, and have the natural authority to do it, I brought my family along for the experiment.

Every night at dinner, we go around the table and say the best part about our day. There is no skipping. There is no qualifying. There is no using the best thing as an excuse to talk about what you didn’t like. You must find one positive thing to say about your day- even if it was a terrible day.

In the beginning it was hard. I mean really hard. There were some days I struggled. There were some days when my kids informed me that there was nothing good about their day. This is when I told them the beauty of the exercise.

You see, you do not need to find one great thing about your day, or even one good thing. You must identify the best thing about your day. Sometimes the best part of a bad day isn’t great in and of itself. Sometimes the best part of the foot of raw sewage in your basement is that you found it before it was two feet. Sometimes the best part of your day is the two quiet moments you had when you entered the house and you actually took a deep breath and relaxed (before venturing into the sewage filled basement).

Over the years this has become a beloved part of our family meals. Some days there are multiple “best” parts of our days (yes- I know grammatically there should only be one thing that is the best- but I am going with the spirit of the exercise here). The exercise causes us to stop and take stock of our days and take us off automatic pilot.

And the effect goes beyond the dinner table. I now often find myself throughout the day noticing when I am enjoying my day. I notice the people around me and the joy that is in my life. Indeed, this simple exercise was the first step that helped me make changes in my life.

It turns out that noticing daily what is good in your life, as the research in positive psychology tells us, leads to greater happiness. I started to notice what gave me pleasure and what made me unhappy. I decided to do more of the things that made me happy and fewer of the things that didn’t. I decided to spend more time with the people who made me laugh and less time with those who made me angry or sad. I decided to notice that even a terrible day has parts that are good. It allowed me to shift and make changes in my life. It helped me begin a journey into a more positive way of living and indeed, eventually led me to mindfulness, coaching and meditation.

So, ask yourself, “what was the best part of my day?” Even if you are standing in sewage.

 

The Man in the Maze

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When I was twenty three, I went on a trip with my family to the Grand Canyon. While I was there I bought a necklace from a Native American woman from the Hopi tribe. The necklace depicts a man entering a maze. I was told that the maze and the man within it, are a metaphor for life. It is an image and idea that is common to many Native American tribes, each with a slightly different understanding of it.

The explanation given to me was that the maze represents life as journey. We spend our lives in the maze, through twists and turns we often feel lost. We want to get out of the maze- to reach the end. What we do not realize is that the end of the maze is actually death. Life is the maze.

At twenty three I loved the symbolism. I was embarking on a new journey, entering grad school, and I thought the metaphor of the life as a maze was fitting. At the time I bought the necklace, I think I thought of life as a journey and that I was entering a new phase of my life.

Years later, the symbolism is still important to me, but today it means something different. Today, I understand more fully the ways in which life truly is a maze. I am several iterations of my career beyond where I was at twenty-three. I have had two children, one of whom has had significant health issues and learning challenges. I have lost friends to illness and violence, seen friends’ marriages crumble and watched as life challenged those I love.

I have also known the extraordinary joy of motherhood, the love and support of a strong marriage, the resilience of my children. I have experienced the excitement of remaking myself and discovering new aspects of who I am. I have witnessed the incredible strength, determination and grace of those who have suffered losses and faced heartbreaking challenges. I have seen love bloom after the devastation of divorce. I have been awed by beauty, great and small, and the diversity of the human experience. Which is to say, I have traveled in the maze- with all of its variation.

I love the message of the man in the maze. Too often we spend our lives believing that if we can just get through this one thing, everything will be OK. If we can make it out of the maze, our lives will be wonderful. But for me (at this moment) the symbol means that there is no leaving the maze. If I make it through one part of the maze, if I turn the corner, I will simply arrive in another section of the maze. Perhaps it will have fewer twists and turns, but it is the maze nonetheless.

Life is the maze. It is the twists and turns; to borrow a phrase, it is the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I will not spend my life waiting to exit the maze, waiting for things to get better. I will fully live and experience the journey, knowing that not all of it will be fun.

The maze is a journey, an adventure, a voyage into oneself and the unknown. You cannot escape the maze for a better life. It is your life. You can only choose the path you take and what you learn along the way.

I do not know what the symbolism of the maze will mean to me in twenty or thirty years. I only know that the accumulated wisdom of my time in the maze will have affected and altered me. My understanding will have been transformed by further living. I will not hope for an easy path- only the wisdom and courage to grow and evolve in the maze.