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Sep 10, 2013

Life's Cheat Codes

I recall playing The Sims and learning the “cheat codes” to give myself more money, to stop aging or to make some other aspect of the game easier. I often wish there were a way to pause real life and enter a cheat code to make it easier because life is very tough at times.
Although there is nothing quite so simple as a cheat code, I know from raising my daughters, certain “secrets” of life become revealed. It seems as I observe struggles for them and offer advice, these “cheat codes” for life become obvious and simple. They really do make life easier. I hear myself say to my teenager all the time, “This is one of life’s secrets.” They really are self-evident and simple, but remembering to apply them when needed is difficult.
Before I go further, I want to pre-apologize if this post sounds “preachy.” If I am preaching to anyone, it would be to the choir of my own soul. I have had a need to remind myself how to make my own life easier because I have been swimming against the flow recently. So, consider these lessons for myself that might have some value to you as well.
The first of the secrets I will share is this: Life Is Not How It Should Be
We all have a sense of how life should be, how it ought to be, how things are meant to be. Often this manifests in the absence of what we perceive to be right. It should be schoolwork, not homework! or I need a better car! or even Why can’t there be a dedicated lane for those turning right on red? We’ve all said these things, hoping for some universal justice or instant karma to apply during the strife.
But the truth is life isn’t fair and it definitely isn’t going to mold to how we think it should be. Continuing to demand it, wait for it, and be angry it doesn’t come will never make things change. Sometimes even things that are truly wrong and not how they should be in a larger sense than our own viewpoint exist, and sometimes those things won’t change either. Crime, hunger, abandonment…things like these will probably never escape the human condition.
This does not mean we have to become indifferent to problems. Many things can be improved. I’m not promoting apathy here, but I am suggesting we acknowledge reality. It is only then we are empowered to make those desired improvements. We must learn to accept things how they are rather than how we want them to be. And this applies not only to situations, but to people as well.
That point makes a good segue to the next secret: Knowing A Problem From What Is Just My Problem
I love the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. When Jeanie is having the exchange with the druggie (Charlie Sheen) in the police station, he paraphrases her explanation as “You're pissed off because he ditches and doesn't get caught, is that it?” When she confirms this, he surmises, “Your problem is you.”
I am quite often Jeanie – not that I wear women’s clothing or need a nose job. But so often I struggle with a problem that has nothing to do with me and isn’t even actually harming or threatening me, but I take on that problem, let it bother me, because I think another person should act or behave how I want them to be. I want to teach other people a lesson so they will do what they’re supposed to do!
This wastes an awful lot of my emotional energy and rarely brings about any change in the other person – other than possibly making an enemy out of them because I have been unkind. Of course, I’m right in my own pious sense of things, but it is all lost when I am judgmental and condescending.
On the flip-side, when following this live and let live concept, I have to be careful not to become too free-spirited. The secret is finding the balance in the middle. I have to know when something really is a problem or a threat. When a smoker lights up right next to my baby, it is reasonable, responsible and required to address that and politely ask the smoker to stop or move away.
Again, how I ask is important. I have to guard against a disapproving tone just because I don’t think he or she should smoke at all. But that person is free to choose to have the habit so long as it is not a threat to me or my family.
To give unsolicited advice about smoking’s effect on health because I should enlighten and offer a better way is just rude of me. It’s somewhat on the same level as asking someone to turn around or go away because I think that person is ugly and I don’t want to have to look at them. That’s how the message will be received…not very productive to help them change – even if my goal really is that noble. Most likely, I don’t even want to help the smoker; I probably just want my selfish way and bask in my own elitism.
Of course this applies to so much more than smoking or being ugly; I'm sure thoughts are racing of past times when others have looked down on you. This brings me to my last secret (for today): When To Care And When Not To
If I am the smoker and am being courteous to keep my habit at a safe distance, then another person comes up to tell me how bad I am - I need to not care. I must not take things personally. I must recognize this isn't about me but rather about the other person’s need to rant. That person does not know, has not understood, or simply forgot the second cheat code above. This saves me a lot of strife – at least when I have the self-control to see it that way.
I am convinced we have the ability to choose whether or not to be offended about things. Some things should offend us – not because it is how life “should” be but because there is a serious consequence if we don’t respond properly. But many things should not offend us because the problem is not us; it is the other person.
If someone doesn’t like me because of something completely untrue, I don’t need to be upset and likely don’t even need to defend it. I use the example if someone said, “I don’t like you because you are purple,” then I would not justify how I am not purple. I would simply laugh it off as silly. If someone calls me a liar, a cheat or worse, my response probably ought to be the same, yet my defenses get in the way - and ironically my protests to the charged accusation usually make it worse.
But I must be wary of apathy as well. I often hear advice like “You shouldn’t care what other people think.” There are times I want to say that to my daughters. However, I realize the statement, when applied widespread, becomes bad advice. Convention and propriety in particular settings are vital to follow, and what others think can have an immense influence on life.
It is a great lesson to distinguish when to care about what someone else things and when to blow it off. However, this may be the toughest of the three. It is difficult not to take criticism personally while still being honest about myself to discern whether I am part of the problem.
So those are the cheat codes I have to offer today. By no means is this the end of the list. These are simply three I needed to remember to apply today. And the cool thing about these cheat codes is they are an unbound resource; sharing them with others won’t harm my game. If I’m lucky, it might just improve it a little.

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