Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.
~ William James
Instincts are “innate, typically fixed patterns of behavior in response to certain stimuli,” and I believe it’s important to trust them. You know what I’m talking about: sense of danger about a specific situation, a strong negative first impression upon first meeting someone, a clear leaning in one direction or another when there’s an important decision to be made. At times like these, I have learned it’s best to trust my body’s visceral reactions and leave my conscious mind out of it. Because whenever I choose to ignore my instincts, things don’t end well. In the worst instances, it has taken me years to recover from the harm done.
Feelings, however, are an entirely different animal. They are “an emotional state or reaction” to stimuli. When another driver cuts me off in traffic, I might feel angry. Listening to the daily news, I might feel sad and anxious. Facing a holiday without friends or family to share it with, I might feel lonely and depressed. The important distinction, assuming there isn’t a chemical imbalance at play, is that while instincts are fixed, feelings are fleeting. And they are largely within our control.
I often joke that I am the queen of denial. But smiling through the tears isn’t the same as denial. It is possible to acknowledge the difficulty of a situation and then, rather than wallowing in it, to take positive action towards change. This does more than provide a distraction from the bad feelings. Over time, positive actions lead to positive feelings.
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According to Wikipedia, the “holiday season” runs from late November through early January. For various reasons, the days after Thanksgiving found me feeling someone less than festive. Although I spent many hours during my week off working on a top-secret Christmas project, circumstances prevented me from fully enjoying the task and left me feeling distracted and anxious. I was alone on Thanksgiving Day and sorely missing my family and friends and numbed out on the Hallmark channel Friday and Saturday. Finally bored with my own lethargy, I decided it was time to do SOMETHING.
I dragged myself out of bed late Sunday morning, hauled myself to Michaels and bought myself an artificial tree priced fifty percent off. I cannot tell a lie: my preference is a freshly cut Frasier fir, but while the friendly folks at Home Depot will trim a trunk and tie a tree to the top of my car, I cannot physically haul said tree into my home and situate it in a stand without assistance. And since I don’t like asking for help, I decided it was time to go with something I can manage by myself. The hardest part was carrying the large, heavy box from the star to my car. Sliding it up the stairs and into the house was easier, and I managed assembly all by myself. Yep, this 7.5-foot pre-lit tree will definitely do the job.
Then I came home, dragged my three boxes of Christmas tree ornaments out of the closet underneath the stairs, and began sorting. As I carefully unpacked each treasure from its tissue paper wrapping, I made three piles: beach-themed, angels and music-themed, and the rest. The beach-themed ornaments went on the new tree; the angels and music-themed ornaments went on the old 4.5-foot tree I set up in my piano studio.
The remaining ornaments went back in the box for another year. Then I went online and found a starfish tree topper from a vendor on Etsy. As soon as it arrives, I will take a picture of my fully decked beach-themed tree and post a picture.
Anyway, as I worked, the ache in my heart began to lessen. It’s hard not to smile while listening to Christmas with the Chipmunks, a tree-decorating tradition in my family as long as I can remember. By the time the mantel was decorated and the red and green cloth was draped across the dining room table, I had started a holiday to-do list and felt excited about working my way through it.
Yes, my plan was a success. Positive action led to positive feelings. And every time I see the fruits of Sunday’s efforts, I give myself an “attagirl” and look to see what’s next on my list.
Now I’m putting the finishing touches on that top-secret Christmas project; as soon as it’s finished, I’ll get started on a couple of new ones. I’ve ordered Christmas cards, bought wrapping paper and ribbons, purchased ingredients for holiday baking. And I see a Starbucks eggnog latte in my near future.
Where there is optimism and positive action, there is no room for hopelessness and sorrow.