I met a rabbi once who told me about a lesson he taught his son on Shabbat. For those of you who don’t know, Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest and those who observe are not allowed to work, use electronics, or exchange money. For those of you who have seen the Big Lebowski, you know you don’t roll on Shabbos. So one Shabbat the rabbi’s son wanted some ice cream but when he opened up the freezer he saw they did not have any. He began to cry because he knew that because it was Shabbat they could not go and buy some. The rabbi went up to him and said, “what’s wrong?” His son said, “I wanted ice cream.” So the Rabbi got down on one knee and said “Levi, do you really think that crying is going to make ice cream? If so lets do it I would like some ice cream too I will cry with you. But unless you really believe that crying is going to make ice cream, what do you want to eat?”
I am going to ask a pretty niche question so I don’t want you to feel excluded if it doesn’t apply to you. Who has ever had something happen to them, when in reality, they wanted something else to happen? Oh, wow, everyone? What a peculiar bunch we are. Life is filled with these wonderful twist turns and they come in all shapes and sizes, they are out of your favorite dessert, it’s rainy on the day you wanted to go to the beach, you find out you have to have a serious surgery. What happens to us when we plan for something, or want something, or have worked for something and it goes the other way?
There’s a myriad of ways we can react when something unfortunate pops up, anger, denial, annoyance, to name a few. However they all stem from there being a disconnect between reality and what we think “should” be happening. The usual reaction to these circumstances can be characterized in one word: unproductive.
Why is this a problem? Because we have a finite amount of mental energy that is available to us that we can use to move us towards the things we want. Don’t believe me? Who has had a bad roommate? If you have ever had a bad roommate you know that it is 10% living with them and 90% winning arguments in your head that never happen. Don’t those imaginary fights leave you feeling drained? For us to achieve our goals or even our well being, we need to be cognizant of how we are allocating our mental resources. If we lived in a cave and kept on burning a large portion of our wood outside, how are we ever going to stay warm?
In improv comedy, the cardinal rule is called Yes-And. Meaning that if you are on stage the only thing you can do is affirm what has been said and then build on it. Because once something is said on stage it becomes a fact. So if we walked out on stage together and I said “man I am so happy we came to the beach.” I have said it, the audience heard it, and just like the sky is blue and gravity exists we are at the beach. It doesn’t matter if you had a really funny idea for being at the bar, because we’re at the beach now, and if you act as if we are at the bar the scene won’t make sense and can’t move forward. The only way for you to move us forward is to Yes-And what I have said. “Yes we are at the beach, and I’m happy we brought sunscreen.”
The opportunity to Yes-And is ever-present in our every day lives. All the time we are presented with things that happen and, for better or worse, they become facts. The thing is with facts we don’t really spend so much conscious energy thinking about them. We barely use any mental energy for those things we have written off as fact, or things that are so unchanging they may as well be written in stone. For anyone who drove today, did you spend any thought on what side of the road to drive on? Or did you just pull into the right lane? You didn’t even think about it because at some point in time you acknowledged the reality that people drive on the right side of the roads, and you relegated it to the back of your mind and put it in the filing cabinet with the rest of the facts. We don’t spend energy thinking about those things, we just use them to inform our conscious actions and pull into the right lane instead of the left lane. Using Yes-And in our every day lives; Instead of arguing about or lamenting what has already occurred, we simply acknowledge the fact and direct our brain power towards how to move forward.
But we don’t usually live in Yes-And, do we? Most of the time we actually do the opposite. Let me introduce you to Yes-And’s evil twin brother: Yes-But. Come on, how familiar does that sound. How many times have you been in an argument with someone, you finish saying what you have to say, they say Yes-But, and then proceed with something completely unrelated to what you just said. It’s like, ok I am just going to wait until the other person has to take a breath of air, show them I was “listening,” and then reiterate what I wanted to say anyways.
A Yes-But mindset is confronted with a fact but then spends energy focusing on what you think should have happened. While Yes-And acknowledges reality and proceeds with how to move forward, Yes-But pays lip service to reality and retraces the path you actually wanted to walk.
I couldn’t have been more excited to go to college. After going to a tiny prep school in Connecticut I was looking forward to having the Animal House nonstop good times I had seen in movies. The best 4 years of my life, people told me. However, I had played football for 11 years of my life; it wasn’t just an activity it was a central part of my identity. It was never even a question on whether or not I would continue to play in college. Therefore my schools of interest were narrowed down according to the schools who responded to my highlight tape. Believe it or not, USC and Alabama weren’t exactly in the market for what I was selling. So I ended up at a small liberal arts college, not exactly what I wanted for my classic college experience, but I was going to make it work in order to play football.
Fast forward to sophomore year, I have had 4 surgeries on my dominant hand resulting in a fused wrist and the end of my football career. Without football I take stock of where I chose to go to school: safe spaces exist where I wanted a Greek row and grassroots social activism take the place of school spirit. Rather than admit I made a mistake and transfer to a school that would satisfy what I wanted I live in denial and say I am going to make it work. Come senior year, and I know I made the wrong choice. I spent years mourning the loss of “the best years of my life” and berating myself for not taking the actions that may have led to what I thought my experience should have been.
The fact was that I made the wrong choice in college, that was written in stone. Yes, I went to the wrong school, "but I wanted a certain experience." Yes, I went to the wrong school, "but these were supposed to be the best years of my life." I spent years in this draining cycle, lamenting what could have and should have been. It is only recently that I acknowledged the fact and realized that no amount of thinking would change it. Yes, I went to the wrong school, and I can’t change it so I am going to think about what is ahead of me.
The truth is, sometimes things don’t go our way. We miss that shot, we make a wrong choice, people don’t show up like we need them to. It is the decision we choose to make in the moments afterward that define how it will affect us. We can either ruminate and fantasize about the life we would have if things had gone according to plan, or, with the knowledge that crying does not make ice cream, decide what we want to eat.