Many, many, many years ago, or perhaps it was yesterday, I needed to take the GRE to be able to begin my doctoral studies. There were many good reasons I was putting it off. For one, I hadn’t taken a math course since high school. Yes, you read that right. I got through college without having to take a math class. Time to take a refresher course was in short supply thanks to a busy job and of course, there was that DISSERTATION at the end. Always in all caps. Who in the world could really write a dissertation?
Then Peggy Barr (more about Peggy below) took me aside and told me an important truth, “The dissertation is only five research papers and you can write five research papers.” And with those words, the dissertation was no longer in all caps, it was manageable. Not only was it with the realm of possibility, I saw it as something I had done before. Now, a dissertation is more complex than writing five unconnected research papers, but still it was no longer an unimaginable task. I literally could now imagine doing one. And with that I quit dithering and signed up for the GRE and did what I had hoped I would do – score high enough on the verbal to make up for the poor math scores.
I remembered this story as I was thinking about today’s quote and the idea that the world might get calm as I get calm. Not cause and effect, but perception and approach. My day doesn’t become less hectic if I’m calm, but at the very least my mood and actions don’t add to the chaos. When I approach fraught situations calmly, it does help others slow down, think things through, or take a moment before they react. And if I’m the frantic one, I can change that by stopping to take a few deep breaths. I can choose a calmer way.
Similarly, I can look at an issue we are facing and see all the problems or I can see all the possibilities. And it’s not just a matter of semantics. Shakespeare’s quote from Hamlet gave us today’s title, “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it.” Apparently, Shakespeare knew about reframing.
There’s so much coming at us right now. It’s overwhelming at times. We know that reframing is a powerful tool for problem solving. But it’s also a powerful skill for managing stressful situations. In Texas, today is the first day of class for most colleges and universities. Some of you already have classes in full swing. UT Austin, where I’ll begin teaching next week (my class meets on Mondays) we’ll be teaching remotely for the first two weeks since the Austin area has reached level 5 again based on the situation in the hospitals. Who knows what will happen when the first of February arrives? Living with COVID is exhausting. But we can choose how to handle the twists and turns. We can be chaos creators and we can create calmness in response to all that comes at us. We can’t stop things from being messy, but a calmer reaction can help those around us meet the challenge. Ultimately, it will help us manage all we have to do.
When Peggy gave me a new way to understand the dissertation, when she reframed the idea of it, the concept became more manageable. I imagine we’ve all had the experience of a task or chore we needed to do that we kept putting off and putting off. Then when we finally settled to work, it was so easy or took no time at all. We managed to make it more than it was simply through our procrastination. It can work the other way, too. Are there tasks and challenges facing you that could benefit from some different thinking, from a bit of reframing? If you can’t shift your viewpoint maybe someone else has a different perspective that could help you. If ‘thinking makes it so’, what are you thinking about and how are you thinking about it these days?
About Peggy Barr: I once described Peggy as a benevolent genie who popped up at random times just when I needed an encouraging word, a bit of mentorship, or a splash of cold water right in the face. We never worked at the same campus, but I have a many wonderful memories of Peggy. Below is the write up from Northwestern University after her death in 2018.