Is Life a Lopsided Tennis Match?

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

In my last blog post, I proposed that life is like a card game. I used this analogy to separate the things in life that we can’t control from the things that we can.

Briefly: We cannot control when or where or to whom we are born—those are the cards we’re dealt. Society’s laws and conventions are outside of our control as well—these are the rules of the game. With time and collaborative effort any set of rules can be changed, but we are subject to the existing regulations until and unless we can rewrite them. In the meantime, we can make a multitude of changes every day in our own lives—that is the skill and mindset we bring to playing the game.

So, please humor me because I’m about to add another metaphor to the mix…

What if life is also like a lopsided tennis match? (Or pickleball for you picklers.) Each of us is on one side of the net, and the entire world is on the other side, hitting a barrage of balls straight at us from all angles.

These tennis balls represent all the many events and influences we have to contend with starting at a young age:

  • A mother struggling with mental health issues
  • An absent or detached father
  • A learning disability that emerges in childhood
  • A hurricane damaging our home
  • A bully at school
  • A lengthy illness
  • A parent losing a job
  • A traumatic car accident
  • An unexpected death in the family
  • A violent stranger
  • An inhumane law or practice

A family member, friend, or neighbor might step in to help with hitting these balls, but most of the time we feel as if we’re on our own.

As a kid, I experienced some of the things listed above. I tried hitting back these balls as best I could. But I was flailing about because I lacked the proper technique. And even if I had developed the appropriate skills early on, a flurry of balls was coming at me fast and furious.

So, as I hit the balls back, the strokes I used were avoidance, distraction, anger, numbing, and procrastination. The mindset I brought to the game often included defensiveness, jealousy, self-pity, and fear.

I believe that our society poorly prepares children for dealing with life’s ups and particularly its downs. We shove our kids out onto the court with a racket and tell them to have at it. Oh, and try not to be a whiner—you’re not the only one playing this exhausting game, you know.

In place of more productive skills, we utilize alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, screens, gambling, lies, stealing, manipulative behavior, and so on. These tactics are like swinging wildly at the torrent of tennis balls. We do make contact with some of them, thereby protecting ourselves from getting hit by every single ball. But swinging wildly is not a long-term solution.

In middle age, I realized that I am responsible for building the skills that can help me play the game of life more effectively. I have since tried meditation, exercise, time spent in nature, journaling, learning, human connection, self-coaching, habit shifting, and more. These types of methods take some getting used to, and they don’t always deliver the immediate bang of buying an expensive pair of shoes. But they are almost always more powerful in the long run.

As I noted before, we players can band together to change the rules to the chaotic and often unjust game known as “the rat race.” (We call it that for a reason.) While reform is in progress, it is up to individuals to acquire the tools and hone the techniques that can sustain us.

As we do this, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has equal access or ability to improve their game. Some people might not be able to afford the same equipment or training as others. And the rules that are in place often favor some players over others.

Remember, we are all that scared, unprepared kid, swinging as best we can at a deluge of tennis balls.

Dealing with a Broken Streak

Tracking my meditation in the Ten Percent Happier app.

Last week, I picked up my phone one morning and saw a notification from the Ten Percent Happier app reminding me to meditate.

Aaargh! Somehow, I had forgotten to meditate the day before, thus breaking a long streak I had put together. Over the previous few weeks, I had meditated every afternoon or before bed. Each day that I used a guided meditation on the app, a circle was filled in under my profile. What a satisfying feeling, watching those rows of solid red dots multiply. I was approaching a personal-best streak, longer than any run since I first started meditating regularly several years ago.

And then…there was an empty circle glaring at me. At first, my brain wanted to seize on this small blip as an excuse to throw in the towel. What’s the freakin’ point, anyway, right? After berating myself for a few seconds, I stopped to ask a different question: What does a streak even mean?

As someone moderately obsessed with numbers, I find it fun to count how many days or times I complete an action. And as I try to build new habits, daily tracking helps encourage me to stay the course. The knowledge that I was working on a streak led me to meditate on nights when I was tired or cranky and just wanted to go to sleep (or watch late-night TV). If I’m honest, though, numbers can get tied up in my self-worth. A long streak produces evidence of my value as a person.

But the thing with tracking streaks is that they almost always get broken. And then, you can’t let that disappointment in yourself get you derailed.

The streak itself, the number of days, is meaningless. It’s just a number. Okay, maybe a particularly long streak demonstrates that you are dedicated and disciplined. But does a missed day or two say the opposite? Are you suddenly lazy and weak?

As a member of several online recovery groups, I’ve witnessed how hard it can be when weeks or months or years of sobriety are interrupted. Some folks chose to keep counting, tallying up the number of days they didn’t drink that year or in general, without returning to zero. All those sober days did have an impact, after all, and there is no rule that says you have to erase them.

That morning, looking at my phone, I decided that I would not let my broken meditation streak make me feel as if I had failed. The progress I had made in building a stronger meditation habit had not vanished. Meditating more frequently had already made its mark on my ability to handle stress and to live in the moment, which was my goal. Not a row of red circles.

I will still keep an eye on my streaks for motivation purposes. But I promise that I’ll keep my tracking in perspective and remind myself what’s really at stake: my health and well-being.   

My 2021 Year in Review, Part I

Since launching this blog five years ago, I’ve made some big changes in my life and tried lots of new things. But some days I feel like I’m not doing enough.

I’ve been unemployed for more than a year now. Acting as my mother’s health advocate/personal assistant keeps me pretty busy. Plus, I’m trying to fulfill my longtime dream of becoming a writer. At the same time, I’m trying to accept moving at a slower, gentler pace, which seems to suit me. Still, it’s hard not to feel like I’m behind in a race, and I’m never going to catch up.

While scrolling through Instagram this morning, I encountered a post by author Glennon Doyle that suggested: “Instead of thinking about how far there is to go…consider how far you’ve come.”

So, I decided to review what I’ve been up to in 2021 and give myself credit for all the things I’ve done. Surprisingly, I ended up with so much stuff, I’m doing this in two parts!

If you’re not into me bragging on myself, then I’ll see you in the new year. Otherwise, let’s get started…

Writing

In case you don’t already know, I’ve written a memoir. I started 2021 with about 33,500 words already in my manuscript, and my book now stands at 64,500 words. With all the chapters I added and subtracted, there’s no telling how many words I actually wrote this year.

At the end of spring, I recruited a bunch of people to read my manuscript and provide me with feedback. A total of 10 people have read the whole book so far, including an editor who delivered a very thorough critique. I edited my book a total of five times, and right now it’s with a proofreader.

I joined the Maryland Writers Association and several online self-publishing support groups. I’ve reached out to other writers who have published independently and learned a lot from them. I even got started working on a cover with someone I met through one of my groups. Originally, I thought I would publish my book by the end of this year, but that didn’t happen. And that’s ok. Hopefully I’ll get it out in early 2022.

Since the inception of this blog in 2016, my posting has been sporadic at best. So, I set the ambitious goal of posting 40 pieces here in 2021. It looks like I’m going to hit 35, which is pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.   

Included in these posts was Snowed In, a six-part suspense story—the first time I’ve written fiction in ages! I’m hoping to do another serialized story next year, and it might even feature some of the same characters from Snowed In.

I’ve been working on developing a daily writing practice that’s just for me. Journaling has never been my thing, and I still have to remind myself to do it, but I’m getting better. I find that journals with prompts are really helpful. This year I completed What’s Your Story by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond, and next year I plan to do Get Untamed by the aforementioned Glennon Doyle.

All in all, I feel more like a “real” writer every day, and that is what’s most important (though a royalty check would still be nice).

Sobriety

This year I celebrated four years of living alcohol free. Removing drinking from my life has been a game changer.

First of all, I don’t think anything I just shared about my writing would have been possible without me embracing sobriety. Alcohol was a big hijacker of my time, energy, and brain space. Quitting was an investment I made in myself, and the returns continue to build.

I wrote a lot about this in my memoir; it was extremely helpful to get my experiences out of my head and try to make sense of them. Hopefully my words can help someone else in 2022.

Habit Shifting

For years now, I’ve been tinkering around with a framework to help balance my life. Habit shifting is a big part of this, and in 2021, I developed a process called An Intentional Life. I contemplated turning this framework into an online course. Alas, I did not have the energy to do both that and finish my book. Instead, I wrote up the process and posted it on this blog in four installments.

Every week this year I updated my “Colorful Week” board, which helps me track the habits I’m developing. About two-thirds of the way through the year, I could see which habits had begun to stick and which ones were still sitting on the sidelines.

Two habits that started to become ingrained in my routine were yoga and meditating. I no longer had to push myself to do them—they were becoming almost as automatic as listening to my favorite podcasts.

But I needed to get more cardiovascular exercise, something I’ve long struggled to incorporate into my life. So, in September I joined a local fitness studio where I can take both yoga classes and cycle (spin) classes. Since then, I’ve been averaging four classes a week. I’m enjoying the indoor cycling classes way more than I thought I would, and I’m feeling great!

The last habit on my goal list that wasn’t getting any love was crafting. I’ve never been a particularly crafty person, but I wanted to start doing something that would hone my hand-eye coordination. And I was longing for a creative outlet that would be different from writing.

I tried knitting early in the year, but it was not for me, so I gave up on crafts for a while. Then, I ended the year strong by finally completing a gift for my mom that turned old jewelry into an art piece. Who knows if I will continue in this vein in 2022, but at least I gave myself the chance to see how much I enjoy working with my hands to make something beautiful.

Part II: Reading, tech use, and connection

Lake of Tears

Image of geese flying over Lake Linganore in Maryland (photo effects from Nexmuse.com).

Recently I was reading through the memoir I’ve written, giving it one more light edit before sending it off to the proofreader. About halfway through, something occurred to me: I am a big crybaby.

My manuscript covers the full scope of my life, with a strong focus on my childhood, teens, and early adulthood. Apparently, those years featured a lot of bawling. Out of curiosity, I searched my document for the use of words like “cry,” “tears,” “sob,” “weep,” etc.

I found no fewer than 14 descriptions of me wailing, gasping for breath, whimpering, or blubbering. Despite my embarrassment at all this lamentation, I decided to keep each and every reference to tears in my book. Though I come across as dramatic and self-indulgent…well, that’s who I am to a certain degree.

Over the past five years, I’ve tried to interrupt this inclination to lean into my emotions, particularly the self-pitying and indignant ones. I hear a lot these days about the importance of sitting with your feelings: We are meant to feel our feelings, not run or distract from them. At the same time, it can be unhealthy to get lost in our emotions—to let them sweep us away.

Last week, I was in a yoga class, and we did a number of hip-opener poses, which can help release stored-up stress and emotion. Toward the end of class, in our next-to-last pose, I found my eyes filling up with tears. It freaked me out at first. I held back, and then when I got out to my car, I had a good little cry and got in touch with what was stirring inside me.

As I sat there, I thought about how our emotions are like water. They are important, but their power must be respected. They can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful.

The lake where I live is beautiful; it serves as a water source for our county, as a home for countless creatures, and as a place for recreation and connecting with nature. But it can also be dangerous if you don’t practice appropriate safety measures. People have died in boating, swimming, and diving accidents in this lake.

Emotions don’t often kill us, but they can swallow us up. In addition to all the crying scenes in my manuscript, I also write about my issues with anger. I have been known to let my temper get the best of me, to fight tooth and nail to win an argument. This fury can lead me to say terrible things to others, to push the most sensitive buttons of the people I love, and to act in a way that seems out of sync with my values.

So, I’ve been working on locating that fine line between exploring my feelings and drowning in them. Meditation has assisted in this effort. Spending time outdoors helps put things in perspective. And sometimes simply thinking about the impact of our emotions, as I did in the car last week, and as I’m doing right now, helps bring everything together in a lesson that’s hard to forget.

Accepting New Things

There’s a saying that goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” According to the internet, this quote is a mash-up of writings by Mahatma Ghandi and a 1914 speech by union leader Nicholas Klein.

These men were referring to the gradual success of political movements, but I think the insight captures the spirit of how we humans respond to all kinds of new things.

Earlier this year, I went to pick up food at a Five Guys burger joint, and while I waited, I became fascinated with a sign that was attached to the side of their soda machine. I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with one of these touch-screen soda machines, but they’re pretty cool. You can choose from like a thousand options of soda, tea, lemonade, sports drinks, and fruit flavorings. It makes the traditional soda fountain look quaint and insufficient.

The sign instructed customers that they could use their smart phone to scan a QR code from the screen of the soda machine. This would allow them to select from all of the same beverage options through their phone rather than having to touch a screen that other people may have touched.

At first, I rolled my eyes hard. I snapped a photo of the sign, looking forward to sharing this ridiculousness with my husband. He, too, chuckled when he saw it.

Months later, I was scrolling through my phone and happened upon that photo. With some distance, it didn’t seem quite so silly. Why not offer people an option that takes advantage of the powerful technology that so many of us carry around? Who was this sign hurting? OK, it might slow down the line a tad as people try to figure out the app, but what’s the problem with slowing down for a minute or two?

Things that are new and different scare us. Our minds haven’t yet figured out why we need them or how they work, so we reject them. Why is that? Maybe the primitive part of our brain worries that if we don’t understand something, if we have to incorporate new information in order to “get” it, that implies something is lacking in us.

But as time goes on, and we acquire that knowledge without even trying, as we think about it some more and become familiar with the new thing, we start to warm up to it.

Sometimes, like the quote, we still fight against the new thing. And those who fight don’t always win. But slowly, the new thing becomes a part of our culture, and we grow to accept it. Can you think of an example of a practice that was shunned, even outlawed, which is now embraced? I bet you can. This has been happening for centuries in societies all over the world. The process can be long or short or anywhere in between.

This same principle is at work in our personal lives. We resist making changes. The new thing—think meditation, exercise, journaling—runs counter to the self that we know. Contemplating adding this new thing to our existence suggests that we are currently incomplete or deficient. And that makes us feel unsafe, so we puff ourselves up by snickering at the alien thing.

However, once you immerse yourself in something unusual, the process of acceptance speeds up—like stepping your foot on the gas. We can all override our instinct to ridicule the new and unusual, and the reward is a more expansive life and a more inclusive society.

Coaching Myself through Fear and Discomfort

A constellation of ten acupuncture needles surrounded the knobby bone of my right wrist. After four or five acupuncture sessions, my shoulder pain was subsiding, but my wrist pain refused to budge. So, my practitioner had increased the number of needles he was using on my wrist and tweaked their placement.

This more aggressive configuration of needles was uncomfortable. As I moved my hand in search of a better position, I experienced a tiny lightning bolt inside my wrist.

Before the next session, I mentioned this jolt to the acupuncturist. My wrist had shown progress with the new needle placement, and neither of us wanted to mess with that, so he made only minor adjustments.

Each week, I would lie there face down on the table, with needles in my back, shoulders, and wrist, fearful of moving a fraction of an inch. What if the shock was worse next time?

I started coaching myself not to be so anxious. I noted that pain is our body’s way of alerting us that something may be wrong. In this case, my body didn’t understand that I was not under attack, so I reminded myself that I was voluntarily welcoming a small amount of discomfort to heal an injury.

While undergoing acupuncture treatments, I was also developing a daily meditation practice. One of the suggestions in the 30-day program I was following was to sit completely still during my ten minutes of meditation.

My first instinct was to write off this idea as impossible. I am a fidgety person who moves around a lot, and I’m always touching my hair or pushing up my sleeves or scratching an itch. How could I remain motionless for ten whole minutes?

I decided to take on the challenge anyway. Initially, I had to coach myself like I did with the acupuncture, noting that an itch or a slight sense of unease did not need to be addressed immediately. My body would not suffer great harm if I did not scratch that itch.

When I reported to my brain that I was not in real danger, during both acupuncture and meditation, the pain or itch would often recede into the background or disappear entirely. I might forget about it without realizing I had done so.

Big deal, right?! Well, yes, actually. As the weeks went on, it occurred to me that I was developing a skill that could be applied to all types of circumstances. Dealing with these little annoyances was allowing me to stare down bigger and bigger provocations.

Even my fear of death started to retreat. Since I was a child, this existential dread would grip me as I tried to fall asleep. Out of nowhere I would think, what if I died in my sleep? Then, it would feel like someone was clutching at me from inside my throat. I used to surrender to that fear—the thoughts and sensations feeding off each other. Now I focus on breathing slowly and deeply, usually interrupting the cycle within minutes.

At first, I was afraid to stop being afraid. My decades-long anxiety around discomfort, pain, and my own mortality felt like a part of me. I identified with it. Who would I be if I let it go? Would I still be me?

The answer is yes, I am still me. My fear is a bad habit, a security blanket studded with thorns. Once I recognized that my panic is not intrinsic to who I am, the work of letting it go could begin in earnest.