It was A WEEK. No matter how much you love your vocation, sometimes we just reach a point where we have to tap out before we derail our own pursuits with our white-knuckling.
By that September Friday, I’d fully arrived at that point.
It was the steady drip of little irritants. The hours spent unwinding a sticky situation for a client; the audacity of “one more quick question”; the wasted time in traffic going back and forth to meetings and appointments. The death by a thousand cuts of unproductive frustrations are the ones that get you on a different level.
A case of trigeminal neuralgia that leaves my face feeling like it’s on fire (when I’m lucky), electrocuted when I’m not. I’m asked how I handle that constant with work. I never how to answer it; you just live with the cards you’re dealt. It doesn’t mean it’s ideal. It means some days are indescribably hard. But also no force of iron will convinces a nerve in my brain to calm down. And I’m sure as heck not going to waste energy reserves on the hubris of believing so. I’d rather apply it towards the condition itself.
(The height of irony is that we were talking about the concept of smiling at the challenge, and this condition literally freezes my face at times and doesn’t allow me to smile.)
By the afternoon, it was simply clear my choices were blow a fuse, or get in the saddle. I opted for the latter. I’ve been riding horses since I was 5; it’s not just my happy place. It’s influenced every bit of who I am.
Riding horses, training horses is a bit of a paradox. A horse responds more to the release of pressure, rather than the pressure itself. This means two things: strong-arming will rarely (if ever) actually get you the results you want, and you have to continuously remain aware of the amount of pressure, power, and control you’re exerting. The actual power is in the release; the loose grip.
And the actual power of a loose grip is the ability to stay flexible, malleable.
All was well and good until our ride back home, when a snake struck my horse. All 4 hooves came off the ground, we came back down. For a moment, I thought we were under control. Then the snake struck again, and all hell broke loose.
Every reflective instinct made me want to white-knuckle the reins. My gut told me to do the opposite. Instead of holding tight, I gave him his head, loosening my literal grip so that could choose where to go. If I’d grabbed the reins and held a tight grip, I bet my life I would’ve pulled him over backwards, which would’ve made him topple backwards onto me.
Because of that loose grip, he didn’t fall backward, he flipped all the way upside down, twisting in the air.
Throughout my life in both work and life, one of my secrets has been, through muscle memory, cultivating the ability to maintain a calm focus and a loose grip, even when everything in my being wants to do the opposite. Not just being able to; but making it my natural reflex. This is what I mean when I say “smile at the challenge”. Especially when things get tense; when I just want to cling to that thing, or strongarm a situation.
The Greeks had a word for this: apatheia. Meaning, “keeping emotions in check when faced with opposition, keeping steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate.” When you worry; cling too tightly, you’re choosing to overlook something; a miscalculation, or the opportunity to turn the obstacle into an opportunity. It’s not about pretending the problem or situation doesn’t exist, it’s just a matter of flipping the script to take power over it.
When the horse flipped and the view of the ground suddenly became the sky, I took a deep breath, got my feet out of the stirrups so I wouldn’t be dragged upon landing. At the last possible moment before impact, I jumped as far as I could.
He should’ve fallen parallel onto me; the saddle horn would’ve likely gone through my chest or throat, and who knows what the weight of 1200 lbs would do to my spine. Instead, he landed perpendicularly on my left leg. It crushed my leg, but it very likely saved my life.
I want a big life; one that can be lived lightly, honestly, freely, boldly. That can’t exist without disruptions, challenges, obstacles. Clinging to the obstacle just wears you out, and distracts you from the end game. It makes us inadvertently play small.
Rarely is a situation enhanced through tension- clinging to the relationships that you know in your gut have faded, having to “always be right ” in every conversation, clinging oh so tightly to that overpacked schedule. To those clients who you know you need to offboard, to the part of your business you know you need to release.
But perhaps moreso, the siren song of control sneaks up on us most in those everyday moments: Those days the schedule gets out of control, the emails pile up, that flat tire, whatever it may be. So we find ourselves white-knuckling, pushing through, a bit more distracted and frazzled for the effort. Less reserves for tomorrow. No good to anyone, and certainly not ourselves. We end up in that white-knuckle zone a bit too long, and find ourselves with smaller lives for having done so.
And isn’t it nice to paint this through rose-colored glasses, as if it’s so simple to put into practice! But perhaps, it’s actually much easier to put into practice than we make it. Each of those challenges, big and small, that we all inevitably face in our day to day lives serve as opportunities to choose to respond with a loose grip. Over time, we find that instead of being the worrier, the irrational, the agitator, we’re actually the relaxed, influential force in the room. No longer the liability, but the source of calm.
Keep your head, keep your calm, and loosen your grip. As a bonus, you’ll likely find you’ve kept your integrity as well (nothing is ever gained by losing your head, a negotiation rarely won by losing your calm).
That loose grip. How simple it sounds, how strong it actually is.