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.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife Wendy and I were engrossed in a one-on-one game of Canasta. The two of us started playing last year and have even joined a monthly Canasta group in our community. I don’t really have a mind for card playing so these games can test my patience. Add to that a somewhat dicey history of head-to-head competition between Wendy and me, and it’s a perfect set up to destroy my otherwise suave and respectful demeanor.
You see, when Wendy and I were first married, we were extremely competitive when it came to playing games. Whether it was backgammon, Trivial Pursuit, or trying to guess the answers before the contestants did on Jeopardy, we went for blood.
I remember one incident where a backgammon board was abruptly overturned mid-game because someone was losing. Wendy would deny that she did it. But since she probably won’t read this blog, I feel confident in stating that it absolutely was her. Even though our early years of marriage were marred by our shared and deep-seated need to win, we eventually realized that it was better to experience the fun of a civil game rather than to end one prematurely with hard feelings and broken game pieces. But, once in a while, our repressed competitiveness still bubbles up.
The Canasta game a few weeks ago started innocently enough with my winning two hands in a row. I only point out my card-melding prowess because I don’t usually win even one hand, much less two hands in a row. It appeared to me that it was going to be a night of Canasta domination. Then I lost the third hand by almost a thousand points and my lead evaporated. The fourth hand ended before I had laid down a single card which meant I would have a negative score for that hand. So, during the course of two hands, I went from a commanding lead to a score that a mediocre player could have beaten blindfolded.
At the realization of what had just happened, and I say this with no pride whatsoever, I let loose a few carefully chosen expletives and slammed my fist down on the table. I guess I hit the surface a bit too hard because the vibration from the impact traveled into the oak grain of the table, across the divider leaf, and into the base of a wine glass. It then shimmied up the stem and shattered the entire glass as if a stick of dynamite had exploded inside it. The broken glass flew through the air while continuing to break apart upon impact with various items around our living room until it ultimately landed on the floor.
Wendy simply stood up and walked away. I slowly made my way to the closet, retrieved the vacuum cleaner, and began the arduous task of cleaning up what remained of my…well…whine glass.
Whenever I have a strong reaction like this, I am both aware and unaware at the same time. I simultaneously know how ridiculous my response is and yet, like a knee-jerk reflex, I react before my awareness can stop me. The good thing, however, is that as I get older, the gap between my reaction and my awareness is closing. Again, Wendy is not likely to agree with this assessment but as I’ve said, she’ll never see this blog.
As I listen to the news these days, I think we could all agree that the world is full of uncertainty. And at the risk of being too simplistic, I believe there are some similarities between my glass-shattering Canasta game and our current environment. The truth is that there are situations happening all around us that we can’t control. The only thing we can control is how we play our cards and how comfortable we are with the results of the game—regardless of the outcome. The key is to become aware of the role our minds play in these kinds of situations.
When I felt my Canasta game slipping through my hands, my mind instantly went to work. It told me things like, “You are the worst Canasta player on the planet,” and “You’re such a loser,” and “Why is Wendy so obsessed with beating you?”
Our minds love to create chaos even if there is no chaos to begin with. During the game, I had simply lost a couple of hands of cards. No more, no less. Canasta playing is not a critical life skill. And I am not a lesser person because I lost two hands. And most important, a card game is just a card game. It’s not life or death.
Similarly, with all that is happening in the world right now, while obviously a different level of importance, our minds tend to react similarly. They tell us things like, “This virus is the worst illness in history” or “The stock market will never recover,” or “I’m going to have to use magazines for toilet paper.”
Again, our minds love to create chaos and want to lead us down the path of believing things that may not be true. The reality of the current world situation is that there is a serious virus that’s affecting how we live. We don’t have control over the virus but we have control over how we respond. And most importantly, we do what we can to stay safe and healthy but try to manage our minds so that we don’t create more stress for ourselves.
This is what mindfulness is. It’s the ability to be present and to bring our minds back to the reality of the moment. When we can see the true situation, rather than the situation in our heads, we can respond calmly and with wisdom. This is much healthier than sitting in our living rooms wringing our hands in a woe-is-me state of anxiety. Because, when we do that, we miss the opportunity to use our time in a productive and fulfilling way. And if we waste away our time in worry, we never get that time back.
As a result of the Coronavirus, many of my speaking engagements have been cancelled, our investments have tanked, our daughter’s wedding will have to be postponed, many of our friends and family are at higher risk due to age, and in my volunteer job as an ambulance driver I could be exposed. And yet, I don’t have control over how any of those things play out. I only have control over how I respond to them. If I choose to respond with clarity, truthfulness, and a sense of calmness, both my life and the lives of those around me will be better.
So, as we face the uncertainty of these times, let’s understand that our minds would prefer to elevate the chaos in our lives. With a bit of wisdom, however, we can nip that in the bud and choose to see many situations for they truly are—neither overwhelming joy nor devastating tragedy. They simply are what they are.
Now to be clear, I have a lot of work to do to recapture my sense of mindfulness while playing Canasta. But I will start by taking it one hand at a time. I suggest we consider facing the challenges in our own lives the same way and if we do, perhaps we will find it a bit easier to play our cards right—in any situation we may be dealt.
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