A few years ago while I was in California to see my mother, I got in a fender bender with a curb. Over 30 years driving, and a spotless record ruined by a curb. It was one of those annoying mishaps that do occur occasionally in life. I finally had a reason to check out the auto detailing in Louisville KY, if that’s any silver lining at all. I like shopping for new things, I know this is a little strange but it wasn’t a big accident, so I took it in stride. And although on vacation with my daughter, I had to try as hard as I could not to let it put a damper on the entire trip. One of my older brothers, who had the car insured, was particularly irritated about the situation. Before I left he suggested that I do some more driving out east, get some practice in before I traveled west again. Spoken like a true older brother.
I returned home and in our next phone conversation, when I mentioned to him the inappropriateness of the comment, the flood gates poured open. There’s no one better than family to push all the right buttons. I was angry and very upset with his comments. Another part of me wanted to crawl under a bush and hide.
Life is filled with many little ups and downs. And how we negotiate them is often a matter of perspective. How many times have we lost total perspective about a situation in our lives? There are times when we become so frustrated with our problems that we allow them to completely incapacitate us. Often, though, those problems turn out to be insignificant or even foolish when we view them with a sense of detachment. But seeing them in their proper perspective is often difficult when we are in the thick of the problem.
We may know that we need to gain a better perspective with our problems. And yet we often find ourselves unwilling and unhappy followers; unable to get past our emotional investment or the expectations of others. Some of the cruelest and most insensitive words in a relationship can result from arguments over issues that later seem trivial. Friendships are destroyed over petty misunderstandings caused by one or both becoming so engrossed with their hurt feelings. We lose all sense of judgment and proportion. People give years of service to an organization or a church only to quit, bitter over a relatively minor incident that fails to go their way.
It’s easy to fall into self-pity and feel sorry for ourselves. We convince ourselves and those around us that our problems are unmatched in their difficulty. We allow the problem to control our thoughts and drain us of our emotional energy. Then something happens, which puts it all into perspective; the sudden death of a loved one, a car accident, or the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Suddenly our problem which had seemed so important begins to evaporate. We feel foolish and ashamed.
William James, the 19th-century father of American psychology, tells the story of a man who lost his footing in the dark while walking outdoors in the country. He began tumbling down a steep mountainside, reached out his hand and caught hold of a branch. In the dark he clung to the branch for hours until he could no longer hold on. He said farewell to his life as the muscles in his arm gave out and he dropped. The man fell all of six inches to the safety of a ledge that was just below his feet. Much of his trouble would have been avoided if only he could have seen his situation from a different perspective. He could have stopped struggling against a problem that was primarily the creation of his own mind.
We all encounter problems in our lives. It could be over any number of things; work, relationships, or even fender benders. But they don’t have to cripple us. It’s all about how you look at it. The next time you encounter a problem or difficult situation, stop, step back and try asking a higher power to help you through it. There is a good chance you will come away with a better sense of perspective.
Rev. Terry O’Brien is the pastor at Saugerties Reformed Church. His column appears monthly.