We are having some remodeling work done at our home right now. As those of you who have gone through a remodel know, it is both an exciting and frustrating experience. A house, like a person, is a dynamic system, each part related to other parts in a living, moving, breathing way. Electrical is linked to structure, concrete is linked to dirt, slope affects drainage, drainage affects wood, wet wood entices termites and mold, and the cycle goes on and on. You cannot change one aspect of the system without affecting others, and you never know what you are going to discover when you open up a wall, dig a trench, or take a sink apart!
Like people, when a house is working properly, it hums—the music is so sweet. There is a sense of security, satisfaction, and delight when the remodel is complete. When a house is broken in some way, it moans and creaks as it limps along. It brings a sense of uneasiness and raises anxieties. Like people, houses are always works in progress. They need ongoing upkeep and TLC.
As I have been reflecting on our remodeling process, I am struck by the idea that houses, also like people, can never be perfect. They have flaws. Beams are slightly crooked, foundations settle, electrical is inelegantly wired to account for an awkward angle or a tight fit. And even when you get everything working just right, time and use and the elements continue to have their impact.
One of the reasons why houses and people can never be perfect is because people build them. Even the most professional, conscientious contractor—or husband or wife or parent or teacher or boss or therapist–gets tired, distracted, frustrated. He gets stymied by bad weather, a bad mood, a troubled soul. He has family problems, health problems, money problems, employee problems. It happens. It is life.
Remodel projects are most frustrating because, at some level, we expect them to go smoothly. I now have had enough experience to say with confidence that this is never true. Even the simplest project has its unanticipated challenges. Projects always cost more and take longer than anticipated. And this is inevitable, no matter how great the house, the homeowners, or the workers. The projects seem to go better when all parties understand and accept these realities, so that we are not so surprised or persecuted when difficulties arise. They are not disasters. They can be seen for what they are–just problems to be addressed.
I find that this attitude works well when it comes to thinking about myself, my relationships, and my daily work as a psychologist. It hearkens back to M. Scott Peck’s famous first line of his best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled. “Life is difficult,” he wrote. That sentence became famous because it resonates at a very profound level as true. It is akin to one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, “Life means suffering.” It is not pessimism; it is not fatalism. It is a simple acceptance of reality. And when this reality can be acknowledged without prejudice—meaning, without too much resentment, consternation, and objection—then we can face the difficulties of life in a more straightforward way. Our attitude toward life shifts from seeing it as The Ultimate Insurmountable Frustration to seeing it merely as The Set Of Ordinary Challenges Which Can Be Faced.
One of my patients calls this psychological attitude “managing expectations.” I like that idea. Often, we forget that we are dynamic creatures in a dynamic system that has built-in tensions and challenges. Instead, we expect life to go smoothly and are shocked when problems arise. But the real problem here is not that the problems arise. The real problem is that we don’t expect them to. While we may wish for it, life isn’t delivered to us as a gift wrapped package with a bow on top, all nice and shiny and clean. Like a house, life comes to us in all of its grit. And it is our job to tend to it, to keep up with the maintenance, even to do some remodeling to make it better.
A life well-lived is like an old house that has been loved. The owners have invested in both upkeep and improvements. The owner has done all he can do to build a good foundation, to patch the leaks, to oil the creaks, and to enjoy those precious moments when the house just hums.