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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: March 2001

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: healthy outrage
  3. Musings
  4. The listening list

  1. Techniques for balance

    This month: dealing with frustration. (When we're stressed, we either internalize it and make ourselves sick, or externalize it and make someone else sick. My wife says I'm often a carrier...)

    • Don't ignore it, which just increases frustration because it simmers, but never act on it immediately, which often causes an irrational emotional reaction. Make a mental note to think about it at least a couple of hours later, after time to cool down and reflect. (How many of you have sent that instant email response you almost immediately regretted?)

    • Remember Jefferson's comment: In matters of taste, swim with the tide, in matters of principle, stand like a rock. Dismiss frustration that doesn't impact your integrity, ethics, values, and beliefs.

    • Confront passive/aggressive behavior. This almost always brings out the worst in all of us. My best technique: "You know, that comment was hurtful. Did you mean it that way, or were you just not thinking about what you said?" If you confront passive/aggressives a few times, they will stop, because you've removed their source of gratification—your frustration.

    • Write something. A letter to the manager helps. A warning note to friends can do the trick. I write articles. In fact, one of my books, "Good Enough Isn't Enough," was created when my wife forced me to stop complaining and venting at her and write down my frustrations. It generated a $30,000 advance alone, and is selling quite well. This is the "last laugh" phenomenon.

    • When it's a family member or close friend, remind yourself of the joy they've brought into your life on other occasions. (Please, no wisecracks about "I can't remember such a time...")

    • If the frustration comes consistently from the same people or same environments, then stop seeing them and stop going there. "Necessary evil" is a term that should apply only to martyrs. If some acquaintances drive you crazy, decline invitations to be with them. If you're worthless at the company softball game and it bothers you, stop playing.

    • Use technology and other aids to mute the frustration. I LOATHE being put on hold, for any reason, at any time. I used to become argumentative and sarcastic, as hard as that may be to believe. Now, I place the lovely music or insightful recorded recommendations on the speaker phone, and focus on my email or the daily paper until a human returns to the line. This has kept me charming and carefree.

    • Exercise. Some people in the physical fitness business berate me for not mentioning this enough, and they are right. Running, biking, lifting weights, any kind of aerobic activity or participative sports are all great for exorcising frustration. Kicking the dog and punching the wall do not count.

    • Meditate. If you do this as a normal discipline, great. But I'm also talking about going to look at the water, taking a walk in the woods, watching squirrels in the park, or going up to the roof and looking over the cityscape. Taking in wider vistas and vaster meanings tend to dissipate narrow and mundane frustration.

    • As they say in New York, center of the universe, fugettaboudit. Don't throw good energy into poor experiences. You control the effort you put into being frustrated. In the end, it's something we do to ourselves, so we can simply stop doing that.

  2. The Human Condition: healthy outrage

    I'm always heartened to see a broad based, non-partisan, cross-cultural wave of revulsion sweep over the land. This is not a political treatise—I would never inflict that on readers—but to use just a soupçon of a recent instance, an incredible diversity of people are outraged by some of former President Clinton's pardons and by his abduction of all White House furniture not nailed down.

    In other words, love or hate the guy, most of us agree he shouldn't have done that stuff. There's a great word used in the scholarship of ethics called, "deontological." It means that most people recognize some acts as inherently wrong, despite the purported positives that may have emerged as to the number of people who may have been helped (as opposed, say, to Utilitarianism, which holds that "the most good for the most people" is the key criterion for ethical behavior).

    I'm guessing that many people would hold a deontologic view of animal experimentation, abortion, or capital punishment, just to cite a few such issues.

    My point here is that healthy outrage is good for us. It shouldn't, of course, be a daily or hourly occurrence, which somewhat dilutes the power of the positions. A healthy outrage about someone who didn't signal when changing lanes is somewhat silly, since it's rarely life-endangering, often an oversight, and not a malicious act, and we know it's going to happen 40 times during an hour's driving. But I was outraged when Mayor Daley's police clubbed protestors at that now infamous Democratic convention in Chicago, and I'm outraged when public schools aren't funded properly in a period of abundance.

    My therapist reminded me quite some time ago that I can't walk around healthily outraged. As a permanent condition, it would either kill me or someone with whom I came into contact. Fair enough.

    But outrage over truly egregious acts (the bombing of that Pan Am flight, for example, or of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City) actually unites us in the commonality of our ethical belief systems. While democracy has always scared me (ever since I read De Tocqueville and ever since they told me I was qualified to vote), it has enabled us to express our outrage peaceably, through finding commonalities or resorting to neutral grounds—the courts. Anyone who demeans the recent spectacle during the Presidential election in Florida, for example, may be missing the larger point: The election was settled by courts of law, with no militia in the streets, no threats of subversion, and no intervention by a foreign power seeing an opportunity in our division. There are very few places where that could occur, and I've been to 51 countries.

    I find that when I'm most angry, I'm really quite calm. When I've been upset with my kids, I've yelled and sputtered and then gone dormant again, all smoke and sparks, but no lava. (Most such anger is really self-anger which is redirected for our own protection of self-identity.) But when I'm truly outraged, I calmly consider the nature of the transgression, and determine whether I should support some group advocating my position, become actively engaged, or simply decompress and realize that outrage is all that I can pragmatically muster.

    After all, I can't make Clinton rescind a pardon or return some furniture. But I'm pleased to be an anonymous part of a larger group which is pressing for just those reforms. They are outraged. I love 'em. Glad to be with them!

  3. Musings

    When I was a kid, I was scared out of my mind by roller coasters, and those were the days when you could still go to Palisades Park in northern Jersey or Coney Island in New York. The structures looked rickety, they made a frightening racket, people on them were always screaming, and the ride (with eyes closed tightly all the way) was over in just 60 seconds. (Lord Chesterfield once observed about sex: "The expense is damnable, the position ridiculous, and the pleasure momentary.")

    Then, down the Jersey shore one day, I thought I heard something ominous on the way up the first Mt. Kilimanjaro-type hill, and opened my eyes to see if I should jump out of the doomed machine. I didn't see anything wrong, but I did see a breathtaking view of the Jersey beaches (don't laugh, they're superb toward the south) that only ended when I was pulled downhill at 1000Gs so rapidly and viciously that I was unable to close my eyes again.

    I sat through the entire minute with my eyes wide open, walked off the ride, bought another ticket, and got right on again. I haven't closed my eyes since.

    There are incredible vistas to behold at the tops of hills and at the heights of our lives. Too often we miss them because our eyes are closed in fear of the impending drop we're sure will consume us, or because we've been unable to interrupt our repetitive ride through peaks and troughs.

    Many of us open our eyes—that is, really try to see—only in momentary depressions and valleys, and what we see, therefore, is ourselves at the bottom. Our subliminally repeating picture is one of craning our necks to look up, already fearing the heights to which we supposedly aspire. (Oscar Wilde said that we are all lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.)

    What good is it to wallow in the depths without relishing the heights? I found that the people screaming on the coaster weren't doing it out of fear, but out of conquest of the fear. And even on the greatest of coasters, only the first hill is truly the tough one.

    We have to give ourselves permission to rejoice in the heights, to scream and to boast, to wave our arms and proclaim our triumph. "If you can do it, it ain't braggin', " said baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean, so why not assert our conquest: We've surmounted another obstacle, beaten back another challenge, thrived for another day. And unlike the roller coasters, there isn't, inevitably, another hill ahead and the ride isn't over in another minute. The coasters operate on gravity. Their momentum is governed by the laws of entropy. We operate on volition. Our momentum is governed by our own beliefs about ourselves.

    I've regretted the coaster rides on which I never opened my eyes, and wondered what views I've missed. But I've never regretted the ride of my life. It's sometimes been rickety, there's been a hell of a racket, and a lot of people have been screaming. Sometimes my knuckles have been white and my teeth clenched.

    But gads, what a view I've had.

  4. Listening list: Vintage doo-wop:

    • The Doo Wop Box, Volume 1: Rhino Records. A great cross-section that includes the incredible one-hit monsters, such as "So Young" by The Students.

    • Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, 1962-1967: Time Life Music. I used to go see them in Asbury Park. They had an unbroken succession of hits with driving beats and Valli's falsetto.

    • Jay and The Americans Greatest Hits: EMI. Jay Black had a near-operatic voice. In fact, he still does. I saw him perform at the Foxwoods Casino last year. Just listen to "Cara Mia."

    • Dion and The Belmonts, Their Best: Classic Old and Gold, and The Best of Dion and The Belmonts: EMI. The only thing missing is "Donna the Prima Dona," one of my favorite songs of all time. But this is the classic street corner sound.

    • Finally, if you've never heard The Nylons, a more contemporary a capella group, you're missing a real treat. Classic harmonies, complete with falsetto and bass. They have almost a dozen CDs available on Amazon.com and other sources.