When Life Asks You a Question, How Do You Respond?
Author Tom Bodett once said: “In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”
Not only do life’s tests come without instructions, studying materials, or time to prepare, they’re also rarely as straightforward as “jump that hurdle,” “solve this equation,” or “fill in the blank.” Life is messy. It’s all blanks, equations break all the time, and hurdles appear out of thin air left, right, and center.
If your life feels like a multiple-choice exam more so than a series of complex, uncertain decisions, chances are, someone else is running it. Someone else designed the test. Who picked the blanks for you? Actually, life is an essay, Seth Godin says. A continuous story, and you get to write a little of it, every single day.
Stephen King doesn’t know where his novels go when he starts them. He just goes. Do obstacles come up? Of course. But — and this is the beauty of life’s non-linearity — you can approach them from many different angles. Some you can avoid, others jump over, the occasional obstacle you can even flip and turn into a stepping stone, a springboard that’ll propel you to new heights. There’s no single answer at the end of the textbook, many different spellings are accepted, and a lot of them can be successful, albeit to differing degrees.
Life may feel like a grueling test right now, designed by a resentful teacher. When it does, it’s best to stay in the present. Find the next right thing you can do, but take comfort in the fact that not everything we do needs to work out today. A lot of it is urgent now but important for tomorrow, and tomorrow can be a good day.
Most of the time, however, life’s tests aren’t really tests at all. Life simply asks us a question and watches how we behave. React, respond, initiate. Those options are on offer, Seth says. Actually, there’s one more: Wait. Breathe. Pause. Sit. Meditate. Reflect. Then act. Then respond. Then initiate.
No matter how much every email, every news update, every next piece of information feels like it has an exclamation mark behind it, it’s actually just a puzzle. You don’t have to untie this particular right now. Most of the time, you don’t have to solve this puzzle at all. It’s just a question, and you can choose not to engage with it. If, after careful consideration, you find it’s best not to, you can even walk away.
The beauty of waiting, of retracing the question mark with a pen to make sure you know it’s there, is that whatever anxiety comes with it eventually subsides. In Linchpin, Seth writes:
Sit with the anxiety, don’t run from it. Acknowledge it, explore it, befriend it. It’s there, you’re used to it, move on. No rewards for worriers. No water to put out this particular fire.
At first, this idea seems crazy. Anxiety is uncomfortable. Why should we sit with it? Why should we wait when we can react? Surely we have an idea. Surely doing something would make us feel at ease. It’s true. Even Seth admits: “The more you sit, the worse it gets. Without water, the fire rages.” But then, something interesting happens: The more oxygen you inhale, the more you drain it from the fire. Eventually, it burns itself out.
The anxiety can’t sustain itself forever, especially when morning comes and your house hasn’t been invaded, when the speech is over and you haven’t been laughed at, when the review is complete and you haven’t been fired. Reality is the best reassurance of all.
Sometimes, this reality can be as simple as seeing the sun peek through the blinds or realizing that your tap still dispenses water. Ironically, those plainest of moments are often the most comforting. The world is still turning, and you’re still a small gear in a big universe. It is in this smallness that we find happiness, but it is also from whence we begin — begin with a plan, with calmness, with resolve — not with unassessed knee jerk reactions.
When the bell rings, don’t jump at the paper with your pen clenched like a spear. In this game, there are no points for spewing random facts or blubbering incoherent bits of information. Sit. Let the clock tick. Let the anxiety wash away. Life’s not a test. It merely asked you a question.