May 7, 2013

Trivial Pursuit

My day was not off to a good start.

I had taken my car in for a routine oil change and tune-up. Something unrelated had gone wrong in the process and now it refused to let the mechanic make it happy. It was entirely possible that I would be shopping for a new car before the week was out.

I needed to clear my head and do something positive, so I jumped in my loaner car and headed for the gym. I checked in, headed for the locker room, started to change…there were no socks in my bag. Seriously? No socks.

I’ll walk the dog instead. That will be good for both of us.

By the time I got home it had started to rain.

Now I’m really feeling sorry for myself.

And guilty.

I’m feeling guilty about every stupid little thing that’s going wrong because this particular bad day happens to be Tuesday, the morning after the Boston Marathon.

In the midst of it a wise friend said, “The relatively small problems of our lives don’t pause when there are these big tragedies going on.”

She reminded me that the very fact that I had these little inconveniences was a sign that life goes on. Life is always, on some level, still normal, even in the storms that rage.

This brings to mind a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Time in which the writers lay out a method, complete with diagram, on How Not to Say the Wrong Thing. It turns out that not saying something stupid around the ill, the aggrieved, the bereaved, and others who rely on us for offerings of presence comes down to one simple rule: comfort in, dump out.

Here is how clinical psychologist Susan Silk describes what she calls her “ring theory,” which, she points out, works for any kind of crisis: medical, legal, financial, romantic, you name it. [i]

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma….Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order….

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens…. That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours,…listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it….

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are,…that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort in, dump out.

My friend and I were able to talk about my anxiety and frustration because we were in the same ring—we both live at a distance from Boston, and we had both quickly confirmed that the Marathon runners and volunteers we knew were safe. Kvetching about something else, something that was trivial in the grand scheme of things yet a real and present stress to me, didn’t take away from our equally real and present concern for those in closer rings. This was where we were; it was OK to meet each other there.

In her gift of just a few supportive words, my friend freed me to unapologetically pray to St. Eligius, the patron saint of car mechanics, and to pray for those in any kind of sorrow or danger, for victims of terrorism, for first responders, and for those who do great harm.[ii] She freed me to appreciate the trivial inconvenience of everyday life.

This post first appeared on April 18, 2013 on the Mainestewards blog. It is reprinted with permission.