Both Sides


The screensaver on my computer is a photograph of an Iowa summer sky. There are many clouds, giving the sky depth and interest. In places, the clouds are black and roiling, obviously about to let loose a storm of some magnitude. On the opposite side of the picture are spots where the clouds have thinned and rays of sunshine are shooting through with that sense of portent that makes you strain to hear a choir of angels letting loose with a majestic song of praise. I love this photo for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I think the sky is beautiful and it makes me happy and peaceful to see even a small re-creation of our expressive midwestern skies.

The funny thing is, I can remember the day I took this shot. I was driving back to Cedar Rapids from Dubuque (about 75 miles, for those not from these parts). I was actually terrified. I had the radio on, and every three minutes or so a weather siren would sound, startling me every time. There were severe thunderstorms with high winds and hail in Dubuque County, and tornadoes sighted in Jackson and Jones counties. I was surrounded by dangerous weather and my knuckles were white on the steering wheel. I scanned the skies, looking for any sign of tornadic activity, feeling very vulnerable in my Saturn-brand tin can hurtling down the highway.

Perspective is interesting and magical like that. It allows us to see the exact same thing in different ways. On the one hand, I can look at the scene described above and be entranced with its beauty. Or I can look at it and feel anxious and fearful because of its power. You might remember an old Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now” that came to mind as I was writing about my sky photo. The first verse shows two different perspectives from which she’s viewed clouds:

Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, i’ve looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.
So many things i would have done but clouds got in my way.
–Joni Mitchell, lyrics, “Both Sides Now”

The main difference between these two perspectives on clouds is focus. We see what we are focused on seeing. This is a hard truth to fully understand because mostly we are not taught to see it. We grow into adulthood believing that perspective absolute, that mood is what we feel, and we are powerless to do anything about it.  The truth is, though, we can affect perspective and mood by changing our focus. And focus is a choice.

Life happens, and we often (usually) are not in control of the things that come our way. Lately, I have struggled with perspective. In fact, I have found myself in a pretty dark place of fear and “stuckness”. I focused on the fear and the feeling of being stuck. Shifting focus did not occur to me. Instead, panic occurred to me, and my perspective was one of powerlessness. I felt powerless to address my own life needs. And that, friends, is a truly terrible perspective to be stuck in.

In “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”, Brene Brown sums this up eloquently:

“Powerlessness is dangerous. For most of us, the inability to effect change is a desperate feeling. We need resilience and hope and a spirit that can carry us through the doubt and fear. We need to believe that we can effect change if we want to live and love with our whole hearts.”

One way to shift ourselves out of the perspective of “I am powerless” is to do something, anything. I chose to start small – a trip to the doctor’s office to address the lingering respiratory illness I’ve been fighting for weeks and to ask about whether there might be a physiological reason for what I perceived as “panic attacks”. Not much was resolved by that doctor’s appointment (there are follow up appointments and an overdue physical to be done, etc.). However, a course of antibiotics and some blood work have gone a long way toward helping me shift focus from “I am powerless” to “I can be proactive to address my health.” Perhaps not a giant step, but let me tell you, the perspective from here feels a lot better.

Once we start doing something, it becomes much easier to address the issue of mental focus and shifting perspective there. When I start to see only the gray and stormy side of clouds, I can actually stop those thoughts and refocus on their beauty. It isn’t always easy, but we can shift our focus from powerless to hopeful. Brene Brown writes, “I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process…”

We don’t have to be in the depths of deep emotional pain to benefit from learning to shift perspective. One night over the Christmas holidays I was playing Yahtzee with several members of my family. Dice games can be so frustrating, because although you make some choices (which dice you keep, how many times you roll, etc.) the reality is the outcome is mainly left to chance. I was losing miserably. I remember thinking, “Why am I so unlucky?! I have always been unlucky.” I was about to say something to that effect to the group. But when I looked up from the useless combination of numbered spots lying on the table, I saw my nephew’s smile, my parents, my beloved brother-in-law and had an “Ah-ha!” moment. I realized that I AM lucky – Yahtzee be damned. I’m so lucky it is stinking unfair!

Last week’s post ended with my statements about choosing to be happy in the present moment. They were declarations about making a shift in thinking that would impact mood, focus and perspective. Those choices, and the ones I’ve written about today, are powerful ones. They are the choices that allow us to be hopeful and to see ourselves as having agency in our own lives. I’ve told a couple of friends that, for now, I’m focusing on practicing good “mental hygiene” – cleaning up my thoughts so my hope and powerfulness are in good working order! Perhaps you’d like to join me in this endeavor!


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