Wednesday, September 9, 2020

ISIS and Stubbed Toes

A friend of mine has had a very bad couple of years. First there was a health crisis with excruciating pain. Then his wife flipped out and divorced him for no good reason, breaking up a family with two young children. Then came Covid19, and he works in personal care so his income shrank by 75%. The office he co-ran with his unstable business partner was still doing a decent trickle of business, keeping his kids fed, when the partner decided to suddenly shut it all down (after ten years), leaving my friend without a penny of income.

My friend has been running around, trying to turn lemons into lemonade, and it's starting to get better. He found a new office willing to sublet, and won back a major client from his ex partner. He was set to get going when some minor bureaucracy interfered, stalling his return to work. "Yup it’s always something," he texted me. 

Where most people would groan and express sympathy, I saw a way to reframe it. "Bureaucracy problems are relatively easy, though. Easier than crazy business partners and worldwide pandemics," I noted.

He accepted the fresh perspective, typing back "True!!!!" But the thing about perspectives is, when strong emotions are involved, they're often spring-loaded. You can see it happen, if you watch for it. Sure enough, he snapped right back. 

"Yeah I’m just a little frustrated," he said.

I took a deep breath and reached for a reframing that might really seize his attention. I recognized that he was setting a mental trap for himself - one that could derail him - and I needed to impart a bigger-picture view. Here's what I sent:
Once you’ve escaped the ISIS prison camp, and made it back home, it’s a good idea, when you stub your toe, to resist the urge to cry “DOES IT EVER END??”

If you don’t watch out, that can be the rest of your life. It can really happen. And it’s needless.
It was a surprising way to look at things, which was very much my intention.
Whenever I use the word "reframe", you could substitute "surprise", though I don't mean a "whoopee cushion" type of chaotic surprise. Rather, a carefully constructed, purposefully propulsive one. It's like how comedians pace and massage a punch line for maximum impact.
Re-framings are always surprising. Nobody ever, like, expects uplift or epiphany, which are disorienting breaks from status quo. Yet most people, oddly, aren't receptive to surprise during hard times, though you'd think they'd appreciate being lifted from their mire. So it's a tricky gambit. It's much safer to cluck your tongue and lazily reinforce their assessment that Life Sure Sucks.

But this time it worked.

If someone were a few notches better than me at this (for me it only works with people who know to assume I'm always trying to be helpful and who recognize that my surprises often deliver a useful jolt), they could be the Messiah.

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