How to avoid a big stink

"The art of wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook."

When I turned over this quote by William James on my calendar recently, it struck a chord that reverberated long afterward.

I've made several trips out of the United States in recent months, and each time I return, I bring with me two kinds of longing. One is a desire to see my home country again, and the other is a yearning to subtract some of the "there's never enough time" mania from my life. It seems so much a part of our culture.

When I'm away from it, in surroundings that don't culturally reinforce the message that "you're not quite worthy if you're not in perpetual motion," I can see it for what it is. I can even begin to make plans for how I might change this tone in my life.

But when I'm surrounded by it, I'm like one of those frogs in water that's gradually coming to a boil. I seem unable to perceive its effect on me, nor can I understand how I get caught up in it despite my earnest efforts to resist.

As this pace increases, the imperative to consciously slow down and choose how to respond (rather than increase the rate at which we react) seems obvious.

James's words were a touchstone for me, a reminder that conscious living doesn't usually fall victim to either time or circumstance, but masters them. However, it takes a very deliberate kind of living to move beyond the fight-or-flight reaction to the ever-increasing number of "urgent" messages coming our way.

A few hours in the company of 3-year-olds each month has reinforced for me the validity of James's observation. There simply couldn't be adequate space or time to react to every new emotionally charged development in a 3-year-old's day. Adults have to be selective in deciding what requires a meaningful response and what it would be wiser, perhaps even safer, to overlook.

As one friend put it, to achieve real quality of life, we sometimes have to follow James's wisdom about not reacting, about letting something pass. This may require riding out a considerable storm of panicked energy that insists that some sort of action is required on our part.

Like anything else, not reacting becomes easier with practice.

Someone shared a concrete example of this with me recently.

She'd been wrestling with her cat's schedule, which involved a lot of nocturnal going out and coming in that was upsetting her own sleep. Finally, she decided to resolve the issue by opening the screen of her bedroom window (close to the ground) to facilitate the cat's nighttime travels.

A few days later, this woman awoke one night to the sound of scratching in her bedroom, a sound that she knew right away was not being produced by her cat. It didn't take long to recognize its source. It was something similar to a cat, but also something that can create an awfully big stink.

If this situation isn't cause for alarm and subsequent reacting, I can't think what would be.

Imagine: You're in the quiet vulnerability of your own bedroom when you wake to find you've got a skunk for company. Every reflex I've got would have screamed for me to run, instantly - which would have been exactly the wrong thing to do.

This woman had the admirable presence of mind to recognize the error of that course of action right away. Her survival instincts took a page from animal wisdom. She decided that playing possum was the best option. She quietly began thinking things through. How might things go if she didn't react at all?

A skunk that had found its way in was highly likely to find its way out, she told herself, and she was in a prime location to know when that event transpired. The unknown factor was just how much exploring the skunk would do in the interim and whether it might, perhaps, fall asleep under the couch. Chances were good, however, that the skunk would be drawn back outside before dawn.

So this wise woman lay very quietly (but very wakefully), listening and waiting. At some point, she heard the sound of the cat's dish on the kitchen floor and eventually - thankfully - the scuffling sounds of the critter returning to her bedroom and clambering back outside. This was the point at which she proved herself especially wise. She let quite a bit more time elapse before she got up and carefully closed the screen (which you can bet she'll never leave open again).

That's the point in the story where I would have definitely blown it, had I managed to find the will to lie still and let things run their course. It took wisdom and faith to recognize that there was just one course she could take, and that the situation wouldn't get worse but would probably get better if she were patient.

My guess is that she had already had some practice knowing what to overlook, or what to let run its course, or how to respond with that deliberate choice to actively do nothing. She left me with a fine metaphor to reference the next time life invites me to avoid what could potentially become a really big stink.

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