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Making Meaning Is the Antidote to Troubled Feelings

Making Meaning Is the Antidote to Troubled Feelings

A contemporary writer on Stoicism, Ryan Holiday, recently observed:

Professional writers quickly learn one reality of the job: you have more bad days than good days. It’s the rare day that the writer finds that the words come out exactly the way they were in their head. More often, one is disappointed, distracted, struggling, committed but unproductive.

Of course, this is true for many occupations. Some days, despite our best efforts, things don’t go well.

On those days, what then should we do?

We must focus on things we can control, according to Holiday. He illustrates with an antidote that I wholeheartedly endorse: “The writer needs a physical practice, something that reliably goes well and gives one a sense of accomplishment, to counterbalance the mercurial muses of the creative professional.” I never neglect my physical practice, including a daily walk with at least 400 feet in elevation gain.

Though he’s speaking to writers, the feeling Holiday describes extends to every occupation. Disappointment is a simple fact of life. However, psychologist David Reynolds’ ideas on what he calls Constructive Living can help us deal with that perennial struggle.

When we feel disappointed, distracted, or are struggling, should we stop and analyze our feelings? Reynolds would say no. Considering the struggles of our day, we may make up stories about people and circumstances causing our struggles. Those stories are mostly one-sided, wrong, and, in the words of Reynolds, “a way of avoiding making the effortful, sometimes painful, changes in behavior that are necessary to produce changed feelings.”

Reynolds advises, “There is a great deal of slippage between what we understand about our feelings and what actually causes the feelings.” No amount of willpower can directly control our feelings.

However, a bad hour doesn’t have to mean a bad day, and a bad day doesn’t have to mean a terrible week. When I was a rookie writer, I didn’t understand this. I resisted and analyzed the feelings that came with a bad hour, turning them into an unproductive day. A better option is to accept our feelings, stop resisting them, and then get on with our work.

When we get back to work, Reynolds says:

The inner turmoil is gone. The conflict within is no more. It is no longer me opposing this condition. It becomes me here doing this. That is all. That is sufficient. The doing is what is important, not the result.

It’s not that we don’t take stock and make course adjustments, but shifting our mindset takes the pressure off, helps us move quickly past the bad hour or day, and leads to better results.

Those results, however, won’t always be as spectacular as we may wish. Here, Reynolds points us to a fresh way to look for results. He writes:

The quality of our attention in action is crucial. Sometimes I work hard and nothing seems to come of the results of the work. I may put in a lot of time weeding, for example, only to find a new crop of weeds springing up within a week.

We don’t stop weeding because our efforts don’t lead to permanent results.

Yet, our efforts always lead to change. Even if the external world doesn’t always show the results of our work, our character develops through the time, care, and energy we invest into the task at hand.

Though in these situations it may be easy to become discouraged and to pay far too much attention to our feelings, Reynolds advises us to give more attention to our actions:

Behavior is what counts. Not emotion. Not even the results of behavior. What I do is the only thing in life that I can control. No one can guarantee a life of good feelings. No one can guarantee that our efforts will bring the results that we hope for.

All we can do is cultivate the mindset that every act has the potential to lead to a meaningful life. Reynolds observes: “How much richer, it seems to me, to be able to think of every day as important, every act as rich with meaning. Such an attitude allows one to live life instead of merely enduring it.”

In the end then, our lives and the lives of the many we encounter each day will be better when we attend to our actions, take more responsibility, and build our character. We can’t change the world, but we can change our mindset.

Image credit: Pexels

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  • Avatar
    Robert M Currie
    April 12, 2024, 11:31 am

    Steinbeck, while writing East of Eden, carved a wooden box for his editor, and put out 400 words per day (See Cal Newport's new book).

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