I love driving.
I counted down the days to my seventeenth birthday, when I could finally get my licence. I would no longer need to rely on the goodwill of others to go to parties and on adventures.*
* These ‘adventures’ often consisted of me and my friends all putting on Hawaiian shirts (no, there was no reason, before you ask) and flipping a coin at each junction to decide which way to go. Wild and crazy youth, right?
On one particular day, about ten years ago, I was driving along in an excellent mood.
The weather was beautiful, it was nearly my birthday, and a girl I liked had just agreed to go out later in the week for a drink.
I expect I was singing loudly and embarrassingly to some terrible song when I hit a traffic jam.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it.
I daydreamed for a while after pulling up behind the car in front.
But eventually I noticed that we hadn’t moved at all for some time. Worse, looking down the road there was no motion anywhere. Only traffic… as far as I could see.
A twinge of unease lurched under my ribs. What if I’m trapped here?
I pushed the thought away, trying to concentrate on anything other than claustrophobic thoughts.
Unfortunately, attempting to think of something else is a guaranteed way to focus on whatever you’re trying to avoid. I was quickly on the slippery slope to a full-on panic.
For the next hour I battled ever-increasing anxiety and stress as I failed to calm down an anxious attack until – inevitably – the traffic began moving and I got home without incident.
Inner critic: What incredible drama! What an unforeseen ending! Seriously, could you have told a more boring story in which nothing happens?
Hey! I’ve not got to the twist yet!
Later that day, I unwrapped the birthday present I had been given before the journey. It turned out it was a new in-car navigation system, proudly claiming that it “Directs you around traffic – never sit in a traffic jam again!”
It had been in the back of my car the whole time, wrapped and unused.
At the time I was furious with the irony, but right now I’m grateful for the ready-packaged metaphor the story provides.
Often we have access to tools we hadn’t even noticed.
In fact, I’d go further: there are always resources we haven’t tapped into that could help.
Inner critic: I’m not sure that qualified as a ‘twist’, honestly. And isn’t “we have everything we need” a bit of a cheesy and overdone message?
Probably. But sometimes these cheesy, overdone, obvious things need to be repeated. I generally don’t realise how an idea applies to my life until I really take time to think about it, which is usually on about the fourth or fifth hearing.
Anyway, you’re misquoting me. I never said “we have everything we need”. I’m too sceptical to go that far.
I mean, seriously… If a piece of moon-rock suddenly hit me from space, vaporising half my internal organs, I doubt I’d be able to think “oh good, I wonder what hidden tools I have for dealing with this situation!”
Sometimes we are overwhelmed by what is happening… and that’s okay.
Even so, I do believe that there’s always something we could do to make any situation a little more bearable. There’s always some hidden tool (or unwrapped birthday present, to keep the metaphor consistent).
This sort of truism is almost irritating in how obvious it sounds, like “every journey begins with a single step”, or “don’t apply toothpaste to your sensitive regions.”
But fully accepting this truth* is a crucial moment in our personal journeys.
Inner critic: Do you HAVE to succumb to genre conventions and refer to life as a “journey”? I really can’t handle all this cheese.
Listen, inner critic, sometimes we have to just use a cliché. One cliché won’t make everyone in the world hate us, you know.
Inner critic: Using the accented ‘é’ in cliché probably will though. Show-off!
Wait, why is it important to look for hidden tools?
It’s important because it gives us reason to hope. If we believed everything was hopeless and we are doomed to anxiety forever, then we would never take any action to change… thus neatly fulfilling our own prophecy.
Believing we have the capacity to change and access to the tools we need to do it allows us to at least try to figure out what those tools may be and how to use them.
Whether we’ve been constantly anxious for years, or acutely anxious for hours, there is always something we haven’t thought of that might help.
Perhaps it’s an internal action, or a change of attitude. Perhaps it’s looking things in a new way. Or perhaps it’s finding more external support.
Identifying these unconsidered options gives us a chance to use them to build a less-anxious life.
* Hopefully the revelation about toothpaste and sensitive regions isn’t one we all need to experience for ourselves to believe it. Please don’t ask me about this.
No traffic jams were harmed (or created) in the production of this blogpost.
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