I read an excellent essay, titled “Mind the Gap,” in the spring issue of Thirty Thousand Days, a publication of the ToDo Institute. The gap to which Palmer refers is the one between reality and the ideal of what life should be like. She tells the following story:
“I caught myself in the gap over the Christmas holiday, when my son was home from college. This is my smart, tender, wonderful son, whom I love like life itself. He also can be, shall we say, a bit messy. I examined the kitchen like a sergeant on inspection duty, scanning the countertops for evidence of Sam’s misdeeds – a dirty pan, milk left out to spoil. God forbid. I was actively looking for discrepancies to be aggravated about, which was stupid. I don’t love it when he leaves a mess in the kitchen, but when our time together is limited and there’s so much that’s good, does it really matter?”
Palmer goes on to say:
“It’s possible to make a habit out of this kind of gap-minding. How many of us go about our days focused on how reality fails to meet our image of the ideal; the ideal partner, ideal son or daughter, ideal outcome? I used to do this with my husband. I’d think, damn it, why can’t he be more outgoing? Why can’t he be taller? … It’s a guaranteed formula for disappointment, disillusionment, even depression.”
This is an interesting perspective for activists. Those of us who consider ourselves changemakers live in a world in which we are ceaselessly observing the gap between reality and what we want, and striving for the ideal that doesn’t yet exist. It’s our role. And it’s what has spurred people to action and has led to the end of the American slave trade, women’s suffrage, the 5-day work week, civil rights, gay rights, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, animal rights, and so on.
But this is not an either/or. We don’t have to choose between either focusing on the gap or accepting what is. We can do both. The trick is to distinguish between those things that are mutable and able to be influenced and those things that are outside of our power to control.
Palmer could not change the weather the night of a big birthday party she’d anticipated with excitement and prepared for with effort. So when a terrible snowstorm kept more than half of her guests away, she was quite disappointed. She was focused on a gap over which she had no control. Although it appears we may have some control over our children’s messiness or our partner’s behaviors, we have only a bit of influence, if that. By focusing on the gap and insisting we can bridge it, we create stress and conflict.
But it’s also important to note when the gap is bridgeable with our effort and commit to striving for our ideals. It would be unfortunate if people were to accept reality for the sake of personal peace of mind and fail to actively and tenaciously seek out those gaps that need to be narrowed. This is the wisdom so beautifully articulated by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change; The courage to change the things that I can; And the wisdom to know the difference.
I hope that I will be able to take Palmer’s words to heart and stop “minding the gaps” that I cannot change and focus instead on minding those I can.
Author of Most Good, Least Harm
Image courtesy of limaoscarjuliet via Creative Commons.
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Filed under: changemakers, mindfulness, MOGO (Most Good) | Tagged: both/and, changemakers, citizen activism, control, expectations, MOGO choices, perfection, perspective, positive change, reality | Comments Off