While it’s understandable to feel freighted by the unrelenting challenges and stakes our world is facing right now, including the gravely concerning, deeply disturbing, and undeniably life-threatening, we’re called on to continue finding effective ways of coping. One small but sturdy strategy, which can be adopted as a daily practice for added benefit, is to ask yourself, What’s not wrong?
You can start with your own body if you like. Do your eyes work? Your ears? How about your hands and feet? Can you wiggle your toes and bend your knees and ankles at will? Can you breathe? When you wish to tap on a keyboard, move a pen across the page, or a brush over a canvas, are you able to do this? If you get a taste for a cup of coffee or tea, do you find yourself reliably carried by your body across the kitchen to the pot, your dependable arm reaching as a sturdy set of fingers wrap themselves first around the handle of the carafe, and then the cup, allowing you to lift the warm beverage to your lips?
Astonishing, all of it, when you think about it.
Andrew Weil once commented that he’d rather be tasked with landing a 747 aircraft at full capacity without a single flying lesson than to be responsible for the functioning of his own liver. The same might be said about the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart–splendid organs, every one of them, operating day and night, often without much conscious effort or involvement on the beneficiary’s part. If your body is healthy and fully functioning, this is well worth celebrating. Thich Nhat Hanh would often invite participants in his meditation retreats to notice whether they had a toothache and, when they realized that they didn’t, to take a moment to celebrate this absence.
But what if you do have a toothache? What if your body isn’t functioning fully? What if you’re dealing with health concerns, mild or more serious? Molecular biologist and mindfulness expert Jon Kabat Zinn, speaking to a group of medical patients participating in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at UMass Medical Center, offered an illuminating observation, illustrating for these patients that, no matter what had brought them into treatment, the human body is a vast and intricate landscape with many neighborhoods and even continents, some of which are not in any way touched by the chronic pain, cancer, or acute anxiety, concluding, “There’s so much more that’s right with you than wrong with you.”
From the not-wrongness with your body, you can expand from there: Did your car start this morning? Is your roof without leaks right now? When you turned on the tap to fill that tea kettle, did clean water come out? Do you have food in the fridge? A good book or two in the house? We have a wild patch of milkweed on the side of our driveway and every time I’m near it I find myself wrapped in its sweet, enveloping scent. Offering pollinating possibilities and generative potential, any number of bees and an abundance of butterflies (monarchs, tiger swallowtails, and others) arrive at this fertile destination spot, reminding me that nature, as ever, continues onward.
But can we afford to pay attention to what’s not wrong? Isn’t it a luxury to turn attention away from the grave challenges at hand? Won’t that siphon off vital time, resources, and brainpower from the very real work that needs to be done?
Quite the opposite. In her research on the evolutionary role played by positive emotions in our ability to cope and even to survive, UNC-Chapel Hill social psychologist Barbara Frederickson underscores the fortifying contributions made by feelings of joy, interest, gratitude, happiness, and contentment. Positive emotions survived evolutionary extinction, Fredrickson posits, because they “broaden-and-build” our repertoire of possible responses to trouble and turmoil, bolstering physical, cognitive, psychological, and social coping resources in ways that negative emotions such as anger and fear cannot, enhancing well-being and emboldening resilience. Further, positive emotional states assist in down-regulating the physiological impact of negative emotions that pose cardiovascular risks for such conditions as heart attack and stroke and help to undo the harmful psychological and emotional effects of unchecked negative emotions that can lead to anxiety and depression.
Consider asking yourself what’s not wrong in your life right now. How are you coping? Running, art-making, gardening, enjoying a cup of coffee or tea with a friend, if you’re privileged to have time for any of these, are all worthy pursuits in these troubling times. Are you able to marinate in the joy, contentment, and happiness that these activities and connections bring, knowing that by doing so you’re fortifying your capacities for more effectively moving forward?