Sometime in the late '80's, Bobby McFerrin dominated our radios (remember radios?) with an uncomplicated message: “Don't worry, be happy”. It played over and over (and over). It wore itself out, so that people got tired of its repetitive lyrics and childlike tune, despite the simple wisdom of those four words McFerrin borrowed from Indian mystic Meher Baba. Like today's “have a nice day,” repetition often attenuates the message.
But Bobby and Baba are right. We all take life too seriously at times. Things happen that needlessly upset us, put us in a bad mood, even make us feel depressed. Whatever happened is usually forgotten over the course of time, but in the moment we often fail to see just how insignificant it is in the larger picture of life. We lose perspective. And perspective is what it's all about. Perspective helps us accept things for what they are.
Take, for example, the time your beautician gave you that horribly bad haircut. Even though you were sure you looked like a freak, you mustered the courage to dash into City Market because of their one-day advertised special on lobster tail ($8/lb!), only to find they'd sold out an hour befpre. On the way out you decided to grab a Starbuck's latte, but the long line and slow service made it too frustrating to wait (you’ve got that . . . that hair!). You’ve got to pick up your daughter from school, and your stress doubles in the long, single-lane traffic along US 40 back into Old Town, thanks to the repaving job along Lincoln Avenue. And on top of that, your daughter had “attitude” when you call on your cell phone to tell her you'd be a few minutes late. Gr-r-r-r-r.
Bad hair day? Over 20,000 Coloradans will lose their hair in 2010, thanks to their cancer radiation treatment (source: American Cancer Society). No lobster tail? In the ten minutes it took you to drive from the hairdresser's to Safeway, eighty-four people died worldwide from hunger (source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Division). The latte? The $4.50 you didn't spend could feed a family of four for three days (source: Feed the Children). Slow traffic? Walking is the only mode of transportation for 60% of the world's population (source: thirdworldmobility.org). Your teen daughter's “attitude”? Uhhhh, maybe she does need to be talked to . . .
Author Richard Carlson wrote a number of books about this, simple little books following the theme of his original “Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (And It's All Small Stuff)”. He reminds us to put our little travails into perspective, so we don't make emotional mountains out of molehills. John Lennon told us to “Let it be”. The serenity prayer helps us remember what we can and cannot control. Bumper stickers remind us that “s--t happens”, our kids tell us “it's no biggie”, and our friends say “it's all good”.
The common message of all these aphorisms is that life’s road has its dips and bumps, and we need to roll with them. It’s something we all agree with, something we want to remember, but also something we forget on those bad-hair days. Question is, how can we keep ourselves grounded? How can we return to this simple truth when things go awry?
I’m a big fan of mnemonics – things that help remind us of something we want to remember, like tying a string around your finger. Carrying a little talisman, for example, that you’ve dedicated as your reminder to stay centered and accept of life’s uncertainties. Adopting some private ritual is another way, like taking two deep breaths before starting your car. Or promising yourself that, for every aggravation you feel during a bad time, you have to supply a specific “something” you’re truly grateful for. Any of these, or something more unique, can work for you (I’d love to hear about yours, at email@example.com).
One caution: when your mnemonic becomes routine, it loses its value. If that little talisman is attached to your keys, for example, it becomes ordinary, invisible, and meaningless. Instead, keep it in a compartment in your purse or in the console of your car, so you seek it out and hold it only when life gets tough. Don’t let those two deep breaths become automatic or hurried, like buckling your seat belt, or else they’ll lose their potential to help you regain perspective. Just as “Don’t worry, be happy” became a meaningless ditty played so often people no longer heard it’s message, keep your cue linked to one thing, and one thing only: centering you again, so you can accept whatever life delivers, and keep it in perspective.