It’s a wonderful life


Sometimes I find myself wishing that things could be better than they actually are. It might be a wish that my kids weren’t so whiny, or that my house could magically clean itself, or that it weren’t raining so I could send the kids outside to play. When Clementine and James start arguing, I start wishing that I had children who got along better. When Freddy cries in the middle of the night, I start wishing for a toddler who sleeps all night (and naps reliably for two hours a day).

But my dissatisfaction with the present situation is never going to improve anything. My kids aren’t going to radically change overnight, and my house is never going to clean itself. So I have a choice. I can continue being dissatisfied and keep wishing for impossible things. Or I can decide to be satisfied with what I have, while continuing to rationally work toward a clean house and cooperative children. When I break down my situation in this way, the correct choice seems obvious. It would be foolish to choose disappointment over contentment.

So how do you break out of the mental habit of being dissatisfied? In his Guide to the Good Life, William Irvine suggests a mental exercise called negative visualization that can help us appreciate what we have. I will be discussing a modified version of this exercise, which I think is better suited to our particular situation as parents. A brief caveat before we get started: if you are completely new to Stoicism, you might need some additional background information to make sense of this exercise. For a more complete understanding of how and why to do negative visualization, I recommend picking up a copy of Irvine’s book (A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy), or Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.

To get started, let’s first think about the relationship between contentment and learning to be happy with what you have. Here’s what Irvine has to say:

“The Stoics argued that the best way to gain satisfaction is not by working to satisfy whatever desires we find within us but by learning to be satisfied with our life as it is–by learning to be happy with whatever we’ve got…One of the things we’ve got is this very moment, and we have an important choice with respect to it: We can either spend this moment wishing it could be different, or we can embrace this moment. If we habitually do the former, we will spend much of our life in a state of dissatisfaction; if we habitually do that latter, we will enjoy our life.” (A Guide to the Good Life, p. 106-107)

Now, let’s think practically about how you can be happy with what you have. When your child decides not to follow your directions, it’s your choice what to think about it. (Remember, our own thoughts and beliefs are one of the few things in life that are truly up to us.) One option is grumbling to yourself, “Why do I have such a stubborn child?” When you ask yourself that question, what you really mean is “Why can’t I instead have a perfect child?” or “Why am I the one, out of all the parents in the world, who has to deal with a stubborn child?” But ultimately those are not the right questions to ask. Both of those questions are based on false assumptions: that there is such a thing as perfection, or that everyone else has it easier than you do.

But what if we looked at that question in a different way? What if you didn’t have a child at all? Imagine for a moment that you had to send your child to live with relatives far away, and you couldn’t see her again for years. (I know it’s pretty unrealistic, but this is just a thought experiment. It doesn’t have to be realistic to achieve its aims.) This type of negative visualization is designed to make you cherish and appreciate your child every day.

So what if you didn’t have your child? You would have fewer obligations and demands on your time. You’d have more leisure, more freedom, and probably more cash. But think how empty your life would be. You would miss out on all the love, all the heartwarming hugs and kisses, the big firsts in life, and all the funny, sweet, silly things your child does every day. You would miss out on the amazing experience of nurturing and loving a remarkable human being. You would miss out on helping her or him become an incredible young adult, and of sharing your life’s journey with such a special little person. (I’m tearing up just writing it!) Your life would be impoverished if you didn’t share it with your child. 

That’s the point of this thought experiment. Our children might be demanding, but without them life would be much worse. Instead of having a short fuse with our kids, we should appreciate and engage in every moment with them. Being a parent is obviously a huge responsibility, but it is also a huge privilege. We should remember to think of it that way–especially when we’re in the middle of a frustrating situation.

I like to think of this as the George Bailey method. Have you ever seen the classic black-and-white Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life? In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is a really nice guy who always misses out on the big breaks in life. His younger brother becomes a famous pilot, but George’s professional life is a series of disappointments. Out of sheer bad luck, he has never quite been able to achieve what he wanted, and his family business is about to be shut down by the evil magnate in town. (He also has a houseful of noisy kids whose exuberance starts to get on his nerves.)

On a snowy Christmas Eve, George has reached his breaking point. He staggers around in the snow, saved from suicide by a misfit angel named Clarence. When he wishes that he’d never been born, Clarence grants his wish. George then gets to walk around his small town seeing what things would be like if he’d never been born. Spoiler alert: everything would have been much worse without him! All the people George has ever helped would have suffered or even died. Over the years, his self-sacrificing decency has actually saved his family, his neighbors, and everyone else in town. George realizes that it’s much better for him to be around, and he wishes again to be alive. He returns to his life with a fresh appreciation for everything he has, including his run-down house and noisy children. And in the end, his friends and neighbors–and all the people he’s ever been kind to–collect enough money to save his business. Kindness and decency triumph over meanness and bad luck. The movie ends in happiness and gratitude for everyone.

In a way, George Bailey gets to actually live out a version of negative visualization by seeing what the world would be like without him. Obviously, for us this is only a mental exercise, since we are not wishing for non-existence (for ourselves or anyone else). But the end point of our thought experiment is the same: appreciating what you have. If you’d never had the chance to love your child, life would be so much worse. We are so fortunate to have our children, no matter what our circumstances are.

By practicing this type of negative visualization from time to time, we can return to our parental obligations with a renewed sense of appreciation for our wonderful kids. Instead of being frustrated by their imperfections, we can appreciate that we have them at all. And rather than wishing for a child who does things a certain way, we can simply love our child who does things his way. In other words, we love the kids we’ve got, even though they are not perfect. We choose to be satisfied with what (and who) we have.

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