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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Casteel

Child of Engineers

This happens a lot at our house and I'm definitely not complaining. Random acts of Feng Shui make life indoors more bearable. With all the smoke outside keeping us in, I've been trying to think of it like parenting on a colony spaceship. How would you keep yourself busy and keep the space madness away.

Of all the scifi villains out there, space madness is my favorite by far. How long can you survive in a box you can't leave. The ultimate test of intrapersonal strength (your ability to manage yourself). As things are taken away, as your options dwindle, can you keep yourself balanced? Can you keep control? Can you thrive?

I've found one Buddhist principle to be very helpful in helping maintain my reserves of intrapersonal strength. I've abandoned hope.

I'm not being ironic. It took me a while to understand this Buddhist principle, but it is very freeing. Hope is a beautiful thing. A longing for something to be better. It's the opposite of fear. But hope and fear are two sides of the same coin and both take you out of the present moment.

Spend all your time hoping for the air to be better, hoping to go outside, hoping to get together with friends once again and you'll be miserable. Waiting for things to get better does nothing to help things now.

For example, one day last week, I woke up hoping I could get out for a bike ride to do some errands. I was delighted to see the air map was green and yellow. I had a great workout with my wife, moving up on some reps and weights even. I grabbed my shower and poked my head outside to see how warm it would be and was greeted by a nose full of smoke. The air quality had plummeted into the deep red in the hour I was working out. I kept checking the air quality app all day long to see if the air had gotten better but it never did. As a result, I didn't get in any time riding my exercise bike, which would have improved my health and my mood.

This week, I've stopped hoping for better air so I can go out. Instead I plan what I'll listen to on the exercise bike. I do that in at the start of the day no matter what. If the air improves and I can go out that's a great surprise bonus, but I don't waste any time or energy on hoping for it.

When you stop hoping, you're freed up to engage with your current reality. You're freed up to make the most of the things you still can do rather than pining after the things you can't.

I've accepted that we're probably not going to be able to go outside this weekend, which does make me sad. We go out for hikes and trips to the beach or Golden Gate Park most weekends. In the time of Covid, those are the joys that get us through.

By accepting and experiencing the pain of loss of something I wanted, I'm freeing myself of the lingering disappointment of continuously hoping that it still might happen. Rather than hope for something that is unlikely, I allow myself to let it go to mourn it appropriately and move on. The pain of loss is a temporary emotion that passes. You can hope and be disappointed continuously. Think about how many of your childhood disappointments are still with you today.

Now that I've let go of the hope of going out this weekend, I'm free to make the most of our time together inside. We can work on the paintings we started yesterday. We can finish the new Lego we're building (Tantine IV - the first ship you ever see in the first Star Wars, which is actually the 4th in the series, just in case anyone was wondering). We can watch the Black Cauldron together, which was the first movie I remember being taken to as a kid.

Hope also shifts your focus to what you don't have, rather than the many things available to you. Why spend your time missing something you can't do? Savor the things you have. There's still a lot to be happy for, even if the world's on fire and you can't breathe outside. After you've properly let go of the things you've hoped for and mourned them, take the same amount of time and list the things you are grateful you still have. My house isn't full of smoke. My son and I both love painting and Lego Star Wars. We love dancing together to "Safety Dance". We love watching our cats stalk the birds outside the window. The list goes on and on.

Letting go of hope also lets you be joyfully surprised when things turn out better. Accepting things as they are resets your expectations. When things turn out better, when there's actually a clear day where you can go outside, Your joy will be magnified ten fold (not sure on the exact math but 10x feels right).

I'm always reminded of this by, "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". In the book, Ivan, who was unfairly imprisoned in Siberia because he survived a battle in World War II and was therefore labeled a deserter, has the best day in his imprisoned life. He had been writing his family, but stopped as there was no way he'd be released and he didn't want them to hope for that day anymore. He didn't want to hope for it either. Because of that, he is able to savor one of the better days as a Siberian prisoner. He's late to breakfast and is worried the gruel will run out before he gets some, but instead he gets some of the thick gruel at the bottom of the pot which is so filling he saves his bread from breakfast under his bunk. How amazing! His work crew boss is able to bribe their way into being assigned construction jobs, which offers at least some shelter from the cold in the half built buildings rather than freezing in the open building fences. Another win. By the end of the day, he's in his bunk going over the days little victories when he remembers he still has the bread left and drifts off to sleep happy as he could be given the circumstances. By abandoning hope and resetting his expectations, he is able to find joy in a terrible situation.

So as we're about to have another apocalyptically awful weekend indoors, remember Ivan. Remember how little it took to make him happy. Think about how much more comfort there is in your life. Stop hoping the present moment was different and start savoring it for what it is. Make something. Read something. Fix something. With so much you still can do, stop hoping for the things you can't.

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