Ever end up in a situation you never thought that you’d be in, but you are, clearly, in, and there’s no rescue lines, no flick the button and get excused from class notes coming your way?
I remember one such moment, huddled in a storm-drenched tent in a massive ancient wilderness in Ireland. I'd inadvertently pitched my tent smack dab in a red deer rut while wild camping on an intuitive walking pilgrimage. The most unearthly howling sounds filled the stormy night and as I watched the rain pour down the shitty seams of the accidental tent I’d carelessly packed, I felt myself begin to recede, and the fear began to take over. I could feel it’s slow icy crawl, mirroring my physical experience, exactly.
Steven Covey talks about proactivity, one of the habits of highly effective people, which has to do with this concept of circle of concern and circle of influence. In the Circle of Concern is all the stuff we can’t do anything about right now and a focus there debilitates us because we have no torque or power to enact change and it triggers all our helpless, not enough buttons. The Circle of Influence is where we have power to do something, where we can get traction, no matter how small, and a focus here, allows us to effect positive change in our own lives and to grow our very capacity to do so.
One path is like ramming your head against a wall, the other is being grateful that no matter how small or ungrand the window may be, you accept the gift of it’s windowness and climb the fuck through.
In that slowly drowning tent, I felt like the fire demon, Calcifer, in Howl’s Moving Castle, after Sophie takes him out of his fire and he’s this teeny weeny spark about to go out entirely.
And in the final sputtering of my spark of hope, my mind offered me a clue. An image from earlier rose up as I suddenly recalled stumbling upon a strangely dense part of a meadow and discovering that it seemed to be a wad of tangled black canvas, which I thought nothing of in the moment, but now had an acute interest in.
My comrade was sinking into a similar level of spark going outness and I suggested that I go get the canvas, now, in this torrential downpour. She felt it would be a waste, that nothing could help. At her voicing the hopelessness I'd been wrestling with, I felt my spark surge a little, enough to begin to peel out of my clothes and prepare for an icy sprint through the near darkness to look for a mostly buried black thing.
Then she started stripping down too, saying only, “if you go, I go.” I grinned up at her, she grinned back. In a burst of sudden cheer I said, “we’re probably going to die of hypothermia” still grinning, we leapt out into the dark freezing rain.
I want to emphasize that I had not found a new tent, or a hotel near by or seam glue or anything wonderfully awesome, but I had found just ONE possible thing, the finding of which allowed us to elevate, to feel a smidge less helpless/stuck/o-fuck-what-have-we-got-ourselves-into?
The spark in me that is stronger and truer than any fear, blazed and I suddenly knew exactly which way to dash, where to dig, how to wrap the tent, each step was just right there but if I had tried to figure it all out ahead of time I would have never left the tent and would have just whimper froze all night long.
But o the joy of true proactivity! Later that night, with our tiny heart shaped candle we’d bought for a euro, warming our now dry tiny home, we read poetry and wrote deeply into what has come to be one of the most satisfyingly joyful moments of my existence.
But proactivity doesn't always look like dashing. Sometimes we get into situations where the way to be proactive is to STOP TAKING ALL ACTION and to focus your energy on changing your shitty mindset about something, and to collaborate with allowing the momentum of those unsavory thoughts unspool and stop being active.
Sometimes being proactive means slowing way the honey down, slow slow and slower still until you can begin to discern your real pace again, not the one you wish you were at, but the one you’re actually in harmony with.
Sometimes being proactive means stopping thinking about yourself and your problems for a moment and going to help someone else have a nicer life, or to think about how you can do something wonderful for a relationship you value. Helping someone else gives you such a positive emotional boost that it’s often the fastest way to help you get back into your usable range, or circle of influence.
I can think of approximately 9 million trillion thousand hundred times when I wanted to be further along on my journey than I actually was and so tried to take action there, but just spun my wheels instead, which is kind of like looking at a map, and sneakily pulling up your ‘you are here” pin and sticking it somewhere else, somewhere sexier and nicer, with better music and faster cars, but you’re still wherever the heck you actually are and all that sneakiness with the pin is fooling no one and it’s a weird thing to spend your time doing.
For example, I remember loving running, when I was 12. And weighed 12 pounds. I remember flying over meadows and streams like a 12 pound gazelle always in danger of bursting into spontaneous flight. However, whenever I’d attempt to run again as an adult, I NEVER came close to bursting into any kind of flight, spontaneous or otherwise. In fact, I would burst into spontaneous injury, exhaustion and eventually and sad giving up on running, over and over again.
Until I found my circle of influence on running. WHICH WAS SO FREAKING SLOW I THOT I WOULD DIE FOR SURE. I was like Jacque Cousteau, who is famous for taking a very long time to regulate when he dives. He is one of the most successful and famous divers in the whole world and yet he takes SO LONG to drop down, slowly regulating his sensitive ears and body each step, gently, so gently, making sure that all of him is good, is ready, before going deeper.
I discovered that if no longer 12 pounds, no longer 12 year old me wanted to have fun with running again I was going to have to slow all the way down and discover where I could be successfully proactive, to find my teeny weeny window and go through it, with no whining about how small or slow and not good enough it is (that kind of talk closes the window and returns you immediately to your circle of concern).
At first, that looked like walking, and not even all that fast of a walk, at that because I had to stretch my knees a thousand times. But after about a half hour of that, I discovered that I genuinely felt like running, and nothing hurt, so I ran, for about 2 solid minutes before I felt achey and stopped. Then walked home. And tried like the dickens to let that be enough, to trust the growingness of pure engagement, to avoid yelling at myself for not being a gazelle leaping o’er dale and hill, to find the bravery to celebrate what I can and did do. That night I fell asleep with a genuine gladness, “I ran a little. And it felt good. Maybe it’ll grow.”
Fast forward to yesterday’s birthday celebration where I hiked up a 6200 foot mountain and then RAN FOR TWO HOURS DOWN it like a somewhat psychotic gazelle, but boy was I in bliss. My body was this glorious unstoppable machine. By staying very small and tender and listening to the actual pace of my own growing, I was able to feed it the care, patience and attention it needed to get good and strong and gazelley.
I like writing this all out. It let other areas of my life chime in. They all want to be a hill and dale leaping gazelles, but are not yet, and that's largely due to me not slowing down to find my genuine circle of influence in them. I like that finding my circle of influence is a growing skill and that skill is growing my real joy because it's all about authenticity and traction, both two of the most pivotal components of a joyful life.
May your joy be a gazelle in your heart.