Keeping Sane and Productive in an Insane World, Principle # 7: “When Struggling, Start at Zero.”
Last year, our family went through some very difficult times. No matter how bad it got, there was one thing that continually helped me regain sanity. Starting at zero.
What does that mean? It means that you imagine that you have nothing that you have. You imagine that you might not have any of it. Then, you mentally add it back bit by bit until you feel gratitude swelling up in your heart for all that you have.
What are some of those things? I might not have a wife, but God has given me a wonderful one. I might not have children, but I have seven of them. I might not have friends, but I have many of them.
When it comes to God, I might not know Him. Yet He has forgiven me and accepted me through the cross of Christ. That is enough, really. If I had nothing other than that, that would be enough.
But I have so much more. Doing Uber, I have met many people who do not have cars. I have a couple of them. I have freedom to move around. I have a home. That home has running water and a heat pump and electricity. I have means to communicate and receive information on my phone and computer. I have music and books.
I was born in America. It has its issues, but there is an opportunity to make money, if you need to. If you are healthy, you can work here. Speaking of that, I do have good health.
Where I get stuck is when I get some specific vision of what good things should be like. Then, when that situation doesn’t come to pass, it feels like there is nothing good. This feeling is loud and strong sometimes, but it does not reflect reality. When I start at zero, I realize that there are all kinds of good things that I already have that I might not have had and do not deserve more than others who do not have them. This helps my heart move toward gratitude and thankfulness and away from despair. So, that’s why I have this rule: when struggling, start at zero.
Our brains present an interesting paradox. When it comes to bad things, we worry about them and go over them again and again. When it comes to good things, we don’t even hold them in our mind for ten seconds.
Rick Hanson, in his helpful book Hardwiring Happiness deals at length with this paradox from the perspective of brain science.
Hanson notes that our brain “has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive” (20). He describes the way our brain works this way, “when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else” (21). In contrast, Hanson notes, our brains hardly give any attention to good experiences. “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (27). Think about it, he says: “how often do we stay with a positive experience for five, ten, or twenty seconds in row?” (27).
We just don’t take in the good. We get stuck in the bad.
How do we start to balance this out? How can we do a better job of taking in the good things that are already part of our lives? We can start at zero in our minds and add all the blessings back from there. This doesn’t ignore the bad. It just helps us take in the good.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope this is a helpful concept that will help keep you sane in an insane world. This is part of a series on 40 principles for keeping you sane and productive in an insane world. These are principles that I collected over the years battling for sanity and productivity while serving as a Pastor for 19 years, raising seven kids, earning higher degrees, traveling the world, and trying to be a good citizen. You can read more of them here.
Photo by Simon Maisch on Unsplash