Lesson 1 - Be Smart

Families can be difficult in all sorts of ways. One of your parents may be alcoholic, abusive, and unreliable. Your mate may be absent, distant and “barely there” for you. Your teenage child may be having school difficulties. Your older sister or brother may be scathing and cruel. Sometimes the difficulties are subtle and hard to grasp: you don’t really feel good or safe inside your family but you can’t quite put your finger on what’s feeling dangerous or off. Virtually all families are difficult in one way or another and that might almost be the definition of a family: a difficult place to be.

Any grouping of human beings produces difficulties because each person in that group has his or her own personality, opinions, secret agendas, defensive style, mood swings, selfishness, and habitual ways of being indifferent to and careless about the needs of others. All of this is intensified in a family, where you are supposed to rely on family members who may not be reliable, care for family members for whom you don’t really care, and deal with family members who may be hard—and even impossible—to deal with.

What can you do to help yourself survive—and maybe even thrive—in this problematic environment? In this class I’ll describe eight keys to your survival. These are efforts that you can make right now: you don’t have to wait for someone in your family to change, improve, or be different in any way. Other family members may perhaps be influenced by the work that you do on yourself and for yourself and that may prove a blessing; but you can’t control that. All you can do is take charge of you.

The first place of taking charge is: be smart. I don’t mean book smart or big brain smart. Being big brain smart is not the same as being aware, insightful, savvy, or strategic. Often the smartest writer isn’t the most successful writer and the smartest scientist isn’t the one making the breakthrough discoveries. Likewise, often the smartest child in class is the most troubled child and the smartest college student is the one who drops out of college. It doesn’t matter how much native intelligence you have if you aren’t also insightful, alert, and aware.

You want to be smart about what’s actually going on around you—in life and particularly in your family. This is much harder to do than it sounds. It isn’t easy to know how to think about life, how to think about our circumstances, or how to think about what is actually causing our difficulties. If, for example, you are sad, you may presume or you may be told that you have the “mental disorder of depression.” However it may be your family life, your work life, your school life, or your relationship life that is making you feel hopeless and despairing. There is a big difference between “having a condition” and hating work, hating school or having a miserable time inside your family. If we incorrectly identify what is going on, we set ourselves off in what may prove a fruitless or counter-productive direction.

Be smart about what’s going on by asking the simple-sounding but profound question, “What is really going on in my life that is making my life feel so difficult?” Ask yourself that question and patiently try to answer it. The “patient” part is so important, as we usually race through life and rarely stop to quietly think. As a starting way to answer this question, you might brainstorm a list of “it might be this or it might be that.” This might sound like: “I know I’m feeling sad. What’s really causing my sadness? It might be the way Bob’s treating me. If it’s that, I have to look that in the eye. It might be how work is such a grind. If it’s that, I have to look that in the eye. It might be that I haven’t realized any of my dreams. If it’s that, I have to look that in the eye. It may be how ungrateful the children are acting—and how rude they are! If it’s that, I have to look that in the eye.”

You want to be smart and honest about what part you’re playing in whatever is going on. You want to be smart about making key distinctions among what you can’t control, what you can perhaps influence, and what you can’t control or influence. You want to be smart about your everyday survival and safety: yes, it may prove a tremendous financial hardship to leave your abusive husband, but how smart is it to allow yourself to be hurt? You want to be smart about your methods: does yelling at your children get you the results you’re after? Maybe it feels good for a brief moment to let your anger and disappointment out that way—but is it smart?

As part of each lesson I want to provide you with a ceremony to try. By “ceremony” I mean an activity enacted with a particular purpose in mind and performed in a ritualized or formalized way. A given ceremony might be anything from lighting a candle to breathing-and-thinking in a certain way to something much more elaborate. Many of you no doubt already use ceremony in your daily life but some of you may never have discovered this useful practice. The idea of enacting a ceremony may not seem like “your kind of thing,” but think of those important ceremonies in life, like exchanging wedding vows or raising your hand in a citizenship ceremony. How powerful, beautiful and important those ceremonies feel! I hope you’ll give the idea of “ceremonies in support of making your family life feel less difficult” a try.

Here’s our first ceremony. At least once a day, find a quiet, private place, get yourself comfortably seated and settled, shut your eyes, take a few deep, cleansing breaths, remind yourself that you pride yourself on being an alert, aware, savvy human being, and gently pose yourself the question, “Am I being smart about what’s bothering me?” Take your time and give yourself a chance to think through and feel through your situation and arrive at some useful answers. If nothing is bothering you on a given day, then enact a small ceremony of celebration instead!

Being smart in the context of difficult family life can mean all sorts of things: avoiding a given family member, speaking up and saying what needs to be said, changing your attitude and opting to be less critical or more loving, aiming for more closeness or more distance, changing your part in the dynamic between you and a certain family member, getting clearer about your life purposes and separating from your family’s dramas, and so on. If you think it will serve you to do the following—and I believe it would—your work for the coming week is thinking through what smart changes you might want to make … and actually starting to make them!