A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table with my journal, and I paused to stare out the window. It was cold out, bitterly cold, and I watched a squirrel make her way up a telephone pole across the parking lot with a frozen piece of hamburger bun.
When the squirrel had made it almost to the top of the pole, just inches from the wire she wanted to access in order to make it across to the tree branches many yards away, she dropped the bread. I watched it plummet — its trajectory was swift, and it bounced twice on the pavement.
On realizing she had dropped the bread, the squirrel immediately — and I mean immediately — turned around and started down the pole to retrieve it. It took her a while; eventually, she got to the pavement, located the bread (which was about twice the size of her head), put it in her mouth and headed back up the pole.
The squirrel had very little — if any — reaction to her loss of the bread. She simply noticed it had fallen and recalculated.
But here was my reaction, from the kitchen window: Oh my God! All that work and she drops it! Poor squirrel! What a hard life she has in the winter! It’s not fair! All that work just to get a scrap of bread! What if she drops it again? What then? Why is life so hard?
I watched as the squirrel made it up the pole a second time, this time without dropping the bread. She balanced with it on the wire and managed to reach the tree branches, at which point I stopped observing her because I couldn’t bear to see her drop it a second time. If she did, that would mean … what?
I was making the squirrel’s dropping the bread, or potentially dropping the bread, mean all sorts of things. Bad, sad, things.
But the squirrel wasn’t making it mean anything. She was just going on with life, not shaking her little squirrel fist at the heavens and saying, Woe is me! What a pitiful squirrel life I lead, dropping bread left and right! How will I ever eat? I am so incompetent and life is unfair to me!
What are you making it mean? is one of my favorite questions ever. I learned to employ this question during my life coach training back in 2010, and once I learned it I didn’t know how I’d lived without it. It’s probably one of my favorite questions to use with my clients, too.
Our thinking is often automatic. It bypasses our conscious awareness and, before we know it, we’re off into all kinds of stories.
Notice what I did when the squirrel dropped the bread? My mind just went there. It applied all my human concerns to the squirrel and her squirrel-ness. It took maybe three seconds — if that — for my mind to go from noting that the squirrel had dropped the bread to asking an unanswerable question: “Why is life so hard?”
It’s worth it — so worth it — to slow down and observe our thinking. We can’t stop our minds from spewing out thoughts — some research shows that we think thousands of thoughts per day — but we can step back and notice how what we’re thinking is affecting us.
Sometimes (often!) I respond to myself the way I did to the squirrel. Something doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, or it’s harder than I thought it would be, and my mind is off and running — I shouldn’t have tried, what’s the point, that was so hard there’s no way I can do it again, why is life so unfair?
It’s not bad, or wrong, that I have these thoughts. It’s what minds do. The not-so-great thing is when I believe them and take action (or not) accordingly.
When the “bad thing” happens, when I drop my proverbial bread, this is where What are you making it mean? can be a really helpful question to pose to myself. (Notice the difference in feel between this question and a profoundly unhelpful question like “why is life so unfair?”)
Humans are not squirrels, and not meant to be, but I’d like to become a little more like the squirrel. A little more undaunted, a little less self-pitying, a little less thwarted by inevitabilities that have absolutely nothing to do with me. Life is unfair (okay, I guess you can argue that thought, if you want to!). But the squirrel in her squirrel-ness reminds me that what I do with that fact is up to me.
What are you making it mean? I’d love to hear what you notice about how your reactions shape your world. (Noticing is always the first step!)
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