In summer, while waiting for me to pick her up, my mother often sat on the front terrace of her apartment building with Doris a woman in her late 90’s with a sharp mind and tongue to match. Indianapolis gets really hot in the summer and when people walking past them commented, unfavorably, on the heat, Doris would snap, “Well it’s summer isn’t it?”
Of course I never mentioned it to Doris, but after living in Minnesota for more than 10 years, I found Indianapolis summers brutally hot and uncomfortable. * Then one late spring day as I brooded about life, I thought of Doris and her acceptance of reality. I decided to make a small gesture toward acceptance by giving up my habit of complaining about the summer weather. I thought this minor but frequent act might be functioning as a gateway to finding fault with the world around me and I wanted to know what would happen if I closed it.
Days passed and the heat intensified but I knew enough about mindfulness that it wasn’t that hard to catch myself starting down the, “God, it’s hot” path. I often turned my attention to admiration and appreciation of the beautiful flowerbeds that filled my neighborhood and the campus where I worked.
What I hadn’t considered before making this commitment was, other people. At home and at work, with close friends and strangers, everyone seemed to use the weather as a form of greeting. In graduate school I studied something called conversation analysis, which studies the patterns and mechanics of interpersonal dialogue. One clear observation is that we don’t reject another person’s opening gambit easily; agreement is the norm. As an individual, I tend toward being agreeable anyway so when people said, “Don’t you just hate this muggy weather?” I was in a jam. I didn’t want to snap at them as Doris would have or go all goody-two shoes on them, “I think it’s a lovely day.” I didn’t want to keep my commitment to myself by making someone else feel disconfirmed. I settled for chuckling and saying, something like, “Oh but wasn’t it a glorious spring?” No one ever seemed offended and often people smiled or nodded in agreement. Fortunately, it had been a glorious spring.
It was a particularly long, hot summer giving me countless opportunities to turn away from the familiar habit of mindless negativity, turn toward accepting reality as it is, and sometimes even bringing others along for the ride.
*Of course, it wasn’t so much the heat as the humidity. Sorry, just had to get that in here.
What, if any, common aspects of daily life do you find yourself complaining about—weather, traffic, long lines?
What do you think will happen if you redirect your attention away from those negative thoughts? How do you think other will react if you stop making negative comments about those things?