By Ron Culberson. With a master’s degree in social work, Ron Culberson spent the first part of his career working in a large hospice organization as a clinical social worker, middle manager, and senior leader. As a speaker, humorist, and author of "Do it Well. Make it Fun.The Key to Success in Life, Death, and Almost Everything in Between", he has delivered more than 1,000 presentations to associations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporations. His mission is to change the workplace culture so that organizations are more productive and staff are more content. He was also the 2012-2013 president of the National Speakers Association and is a recognized expert on the benefits of humor and laughter.
When I sent out my last email newsletter, I received more than 350 autoresponders. You know what autoresponders are, right? They’re those automatic return emails that say something like, “I’m out of the office having more fun than this and will respond to your email when I return.”
Generally speaking, I receive about 30-40 autoresponders for any particular newsletter. Even though my distribution list is fairly large, I had never gotten anywhere near 350 autoresponders before. So, when the deluge started, I panicked. I was sure that something somewhere was, for some reason, somewhat broken.
I don’t know about you, but I can conjure up a pretty good panic if I need to. I can imagine the worst case scenario and work myself into a tizzy—and I’m not even sure what a “tizzy” is. So, in the case of this seemingly endless stream of autoresponders, I imagined that my newsletter service provider had sent my emails to the wrong list. Or perhaps my computer had been hacked by a bored yet resourceful high school student who was now sending my emails to people I didn’t know. Or maybe the Russians had gained control over the entire internet infrastructure.
Clearly, I’m pretty good at tizzies.
Well, it turns out there were some logical reasons for the increase in autoresponders. First, my newsletter service provider had upgraded their system and as a result, fewer autoresponders were filtered out. And second, I had decreased the threshold of my spam filter because it was blocking legitimate emails. Due to these “adjustments,” I received more than ten times as many autoresponders. Ironically, though, they alerted me to the fact that many of my subscribers had retired or taken new jobs and thus, their email addresses were no longer valid.
So, while the initial shock of a potential Russian takeover sent me into a tizzy, the reality of the situation was not nearly as bad as I had imagined. This is what we tend to do. We take our daily molehills and instead of sidestepping them, we turn them into unclimbable mountains.
One of the most interesting ideas I’ve stumbled upon recently is the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Simply put, impermanence means that nothing on our planet lasts forever. Not the trees, not the buildings, not even the people.
Now, I understand that one could make a valid argument that God lasts forever. Or love lasts forever. Or even our role as a parent lasts forever. But in a more tangible sense, everything eventually changes or ceases to exist.
The other day, I was on a step ladder retrieving a sweater that I had stored away. As I reached for the sweater, I bumped my head against the edge of a ceiling light. As you older bald men know, the skin on our heads becomes thinner than tissue paper as we age. So, the edge of the light cut a small gash in my head. My immediate reaction was to get angry. You see, I bump my head all the time and there seems to always be a cut, scratch, or bruise on my scalp. All I could think was, “Dang it, not again.”
But then, I became aware of the error in my thinking. I realized that the cut will eventually heal and then it will be gone. In other words, it too will pass. At that moment, I felt less stress and began to relax…and then I went to find the box of adhesive bandages that we now buy in bulk because of my repeated noggin knockin.
The ceiling light incident was an example of a bad situation that actually got better. But many times we find ourselves in good situations that get worse. It’s in these times that the understanding of impermanence can help.
When we cling to the way things are, we have difficulty accepting the way things may become. As our children age and leave home, we long for when they were younger. As our bodies get older, we long for the days when our knees didn’t creak and our backs didn’t ache. When a loved one dies, we long for being with them again. And yet, this is exactly how life unfolds—for all of us. Time moves on, things change, and we adapt. Truthfully, it’s impossible for things to stay the same.
If we can grasp this idea of impermanence, we can spend less time resisting the reality of change and spend more time appreciating our moment to moment existence as we journey through life. Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean we don’t try to solve problems or to improve our situations when we can. It just means that we don’t cling to the way things were as a way to avoid the way things might become.
When I encountered the hundreds of autoresponders, I started pacing around the house worrying about all the possible problems this newfound dilemma might represent. That response created stress for me and for my wife who had to listen to my worrisome whining.
If, on the other hand, I had remembered that the problem would eventually pass, I could have returned my focus to dealing with the realities of the issue rather than living in the tizzy-making possibilities that might never actually happen.
Impermanence is a reality that makes life a bit easier when we understand it. Sometimes, dealing with impermanence is difficult such as when we lose a job or have to care for an aging pet. And sometimes impermanence is for the better such as when we eliminated carbon paper and gas-guzzling cars.
Either way, accepting impermanence allows us to not get too locked in to the way things have been and to instead accept the way things have become. Oh, and by the way, the cut on my head is gone—just in time to bump into something else!
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