7 Things: I Wish

(inspired by my friend, Rev, who has regrets… as we all do)

I once read in a self-improvement article that you should never say “I wish” or “I hope.”

The sentiment behind this advice is good. “I wish” or “I hope” represents a mentality of inaction, of powerlessness. It relegates you to Dr. Seuss’ infamous “waiting place,” where you just twiddle your thumbs for someone or something to come and bring you what you want. It removes you from the mindset that you are the protagonist of your own story and that only you can fix your life.

I agree with the sentiment. I disagree with the statement.

I believe the phrases “I wish” and “I hope” have incredible power. “I wish” takes us back to a time when everything was real and anything was possible. “I hope” is a warrior against cynicism and complacency.  Wishing and hoping work for us, not against us.

As long as we realize they don’t work alone. And that both work in only one direction.

The thing about life is, we can’t go back. We can only move forward. That sounds generic and obvious, but many of us forget.

Hope intrinsically looks toward the future. It imagines better things ahead. The secret is to make sure wishes look that way too. When we wish, we must wish forward. If we don’t, wishes betray us and become regrets.

I know regret. I also know wishing. And I know hope. Rarely do I know those things at the same time.

I am hardly an expert on becoming a better person or fixing a life. If I were, I would be a better person and have a perfect life. I do, however, have experience with being a different kind of person than I am now. I have experience with cynicism so deep I may as well not exist, and with optimism so unbridled it’s almost foolish. I have been to dark places, I have endured bleak periods, some so deep and seemingly endless that I could have just as easily have not survived them as survived them.

I know how hard it can be to overcome pain. And disappointment. And despair.

Mental and emotional health aren’t a given for everyone, and, when they’re not given, you have to work for them. You have to put as much effort into maintaining them as you do into maintaining your physical health.

Often more.

I’m not going to lie. I am not as emotionally stable as I would like to be on as consistent a basis as I would like, but I am also not the tragedy I could have become. So, in the hope that someone might benefit from lessons I’ve learned the hard way, here are seven things that I’ve found beneficial to moving forward when you feel like you want to lay down and surrender.

1 – Have regrets.

It’s counterintuitive, I know, but regrets are valid. We don’t learn without mistakes and, when mistakes are great, we’re bound to carry some regret.

I know people who say they have no regrets, or that they will never regret any decision they make. They are the same people I know who never learn.

2 – Don’t dwell on the past.

Though you can (and, in some cases, should) have regrets, you have to remember where they belong. Regrets are the past, and you can’t let them rule your present.

You also cannot allow past disappointments or slights to stay with you. I admit to breaking this one constantly, but I do recognize that I can’t get through a day happy once I start thinking about past pain.

Outside of hypnosis or a lobotomy, I think it’s impossible not to revisit the past. We look back for the people we’ve left behind, at the paths we could have taken. It’s not the looking back that’s the problem. It’s the staring at the briar bush and feeling the pain all over again. It’s the fixating on the point where the road split and thinking, “If I’d just taken that other path, I would be happier.”

This is a false assumption. It’s nostalgia for a past that never existed. All roads have hazards, and, if you’re looking back at the briar bush, it’s because you’ve already come through it. That other path might have been clear, or it might have had quicksand you never would have escaped.

3 – Be in the moment.

Self-help gurus love this advice. Get out of your head and be right where you are. Don’t think about the past or the future. Don’t worry about what you need to do in an hour or in a month. Concentrate on right here, right now. Be present for what you are doing, no matter what you are doing. Focus on the task at hand.

When you are present, you let a moment happen as it is happening. You don’t inject it with past anger or future worries. Which is the only way to lessen negativity. You can only replace bad memories with good memories if you let the good ones be made without the bad ones interfering.

3b – Be mindful.

An essential element of being in the moment is being mindful. Not just focusing on the present, but directing focus to one aspect of the present at a time.

As a serious mutli-tasker, I’ve always found this advice, well… a bit time-consuming. Focusing on one thing at a time means focusing on one thing at a time, not switching back and forth between two or three. How could I ever accomplish anything under such freakishly unrushed circumstances?

I thought the idea of mindfulness so time-consuming, in fact, I refused to even try it. Until recently when my stress levels were going through the roof and I feared cortisol might start bubbling out my ears.

What I discovered honestly surprised me. Multi-tasking is a perpetually stressful state for me. I get a lot done, but I enjoy nothing that I’m doing. When I don’t multi-task, I don’t get as much done, I don’t make as much money, I move things from one day’s to-do list to the next day. But I can breathe.

Sometimes, I can even smile.

4 – Stop complaining.

Complaining is even worse than worrying. Not only does it accomplish just as little, it annoys everyone around you in the process.

We all have our moments. We all have occasional, valid complaints. The key, I think, is to keep them occasional and valid.

If your life is nothing but a series of complaints, change your life. If it’s too much work to try to change your life, quit complaining. It’s one thing to work hard and have other people stand in the way of your success. It’s quite another to do nothing and revel in your misery. None of us have any right to complain about things that aren’t good enough for us, but that we make no effort to improve.

Sometimes the act of striving for external things turns our attention too far outward. Owning a house isn’t some distant possibility. It’s a personal, immediate responsibility of saving money for a down payment. A goal weight isn’t some mythical number on a scale. It’s counting calories and dedicating time to exercise. A perfect partner may be a bit of a fantasy, but by working on ourselves, we can come closer to that ideal.

If we think that the life we want should come to us as we are, that we shouldn’t have to work for better, we have to accept whatever life decides we deserve.

5 – Work toward who you want to be, not just what you want.

There are things we all want out of life. We fixate on them. They drive us. They are our goal lines through life. Each one that we reach feels like a win. Those are our big moments.

But you can reach a goal by cheating. You can take shortcuts. You can trip up competitors. In an effort to get ahead, to reach goals, to win, many people do all of these things and more.

It doesn’t matter if you get to your goal, though, if you end up there alone and don’t like the company.

There are things that I want so desperately, I ache for them on a daily basis. I know that there are easier routes to those things than the one that I am taking. There have been a lot of very successful cheaters in my heat in the news lately. I also know that, when it comes down to it, the only person who has to live with me is me.

6 – Let go of people who hold you back. Or pull you down.

This is a hard thing to do. It hurts to let go of people you love. It’s easier to cling, even if the hanging on feels like punishment.

Sometimes people complain too much or are too pessimistic. Sometimes they are too callous, and you can’t handle their loose tongues.

Change also happens, and sometimes you simply outgrow each other. Even those people very close to you.

Let them go.

It doesn’t have to be a complete goodbye. Sometimes, you just have to stay out of range.

You may miss them, you may feel alone, but if the people in your life make you miserable, you’re better off keeping your distance.

7 – Find your balance.

The self-help market is so saturated, you’d think most people on the planet were born with incredible insight into the human psyche. But I think there is such great variation in the self-help market because self-help is personal. What helps one person won’t help another. Even if the Dr. Phils of the world think we all work basically the same.

In my experience, you can’t rely on anything outside of yourself to determine what makes you happy. My mental state depends on everything. And I mean everything. I have to eat the proper foods, exercise enough, but not too much, drink an adequate amount of caffeine, know when to eat chocolate, wear the right clothes, dance the right dance, and so on. I also have to be careful with the things to which I expose myself, because I am  just not an “Okay, I read it. They’re idiots” kind of person. When something truly gets to me, I spiral. And, when I spiral, I don’t stop until I hit the bottom.

I used to think it was important that I know everything that was going on in the world, that it was essential to be informed. As much as I don’t like being ignorant, though, I know now that I can’t always handle this world’s reality, and that it’s more important for me to be well than to be informed.

I am no good to anyone, including myself, if I can’t get out of bed.

If I have one piece of universal advice to give when it comes to psychological health, it’s to pinpoint your weaknesses and figure out what you need to do to overcome them. If something isn’t working in your life, stop doing it and try something else. If that doesn’t work, stop doing that and find something new.

As far as I can tell, life is kind of trial and error. Often, it’s the routines in which we trap ourselves that lead to discontent and wishful thinking. Only when we admit what doesn’t work for us can we find out what does.

And, whatever you do, never stop wishing. Just  wish forward, knowing that you are your own Santa Claus, your genie in a bottle, your knight in shining armor.

So, if you want to be a world-famous photographer, it’s probably time you bought that camera.

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