The idea that a situation “shouldn’t be” seems key to my level of annoyance. Acceptance of what is and will be, correlates with my ability to dial down my reaction.
“Annoyance is an unpleasant mental state that is characterized by irritation and distraction from one's conscious thinking. It can lead to emotions such as frustration and anger. The property of being easily annoyed is called irritability.” Wikipedia
Do you want to know what’s annoying? Well, I’ll tell you. My new neighbor’s light. When we first moved to our house we looked out on lovely woods. During the pandemic, the trees were slaughtered and three large houses were built. The one furthest away has a blaring, outside light that comes on as soon as it’s dark, shining directly into our bedroom bay window, aimed to hit squarely on my pillow, accosting my eyes with its super LED glare. I seethe and imagine writing pleading letters, begging them to reposition the light and dropping the “Welcome to the neighborhood!” card in their new plastic mailbox. But I don’t do it.
I lived in Brooklyn in the 1990’s, during the era when you locked your steering wheel with a red iron bar called “the club” and took out your car radio at night so your windows would not be smashed and your radio and other items would not be stolen. Car alarms were ubiquitous and always malfunctioning. My bedroom faced the street and inevitably some kind of obscure jostling would set off the alarm of a car parked beneath my window. Some of those alarms would go on and off throughout the night. There was nothing I could do. The owners were usually anonymous, having scored a precious parking space in the nightly competition. I thought of leaving nasty notes on windshields but then morning would come and the day would take over.
Other places I have lived were on busy streets frequented by racing police cars, wailing ambulances and caravans of firetrucks with screaming sirens. But none of those noisome noises were as annoying as that insidious light. It shouldn’t be there. I should be looking out my window and seeing trees and an inky black, star-filled sky.
The idea that a situation “shouldn’t be” seems key to my level of annoyance. Acceptance of what is and will be, correlates with my ability to dial down my reaction. Things that used to get me going, that created an unpleasant mental state characterized by obsessive thoughts brimming with frustration and anger, even rage, are now met with mere resignation and some sadness.
I asked my father, during one of our twice-a-month phone conversations, whether or not he had opened the email we sent, gone to our Kickstarter page, watched our video and read the endorsements and enthusiastic descriptions of my book. He replied that he already had 6 books on his Kindle queue.
“Besides,” he said. “I’m 95, have lived my life and don’t need a self-help book.”
“Aren’t you curious?” I asked.
“Maybe I’ll order it when it’s on Amazon,” he added, as consolation.
Maybe he will. And maybe not.
Was I annoyed by his comment? No. Sad? Yes. Hurt? Not much. Why? Because I don’t expect anything different. Should I have a father that is interested in what I do and wants to support me?
For five decades I had many ideas about how he should be, how a father should act. The father I longed for was in stark contrast with the father I had, or rather didn’t have. Some new or old outrage connected to my father would constantly highjack my conscious mind. Thoughts and feelings spiraled with imagined conversations I would never have, letters I would never write, trapping me in an unpleasant mental state over which I felt I had no control and could not escape.
From 1981 to now, my father and I have only been together less than a dozen times. All were times I made the effort, took the plane, drove the car, pushed for the meeting. For years he refused to take my call. What did I do to warrant such a response? Well, you can’t ask his second wife, who was his college student and three years younger than me. She’s dead. But as much as I worked to accept and even befriend her, even serving as her bridesmaid, she found reasons to reject me and demand my father do the same. It was easier that way. They travelled the world and had their life. None of their friends knew my father had children. My younger disabled brother only saw my father once time from 1981 to his death in 2018. My father’s third wife was surprised to learn he had three children and made the effort to establish contact. She’s the reason for the last three visits. But then she died. She was also around my age, also had red hair. He’s outlived three wives and has been isolated due to the pandemic. So, he takes my calls.
Someone suggested that I put up blinds on our bedroom bay window, defend against the attacking glare. I could. But then I’d also be blocking my view of the remaining trees, the sunsets and morning light, the few stars I see when I get up at night.
Friends question why I bother calling my father, why set myself up for each inevitable disappointment? He blocked our relationship for so many years, his actions and inactions caused so much anguish and pain, why don’t I block him, blind myself to his loneliness and fear of dying? I could. I think few would fault my decision. But every other week I call. He never calls me. I listen as he talks about the books he’s reading, not the book I’ve been writing. I listen to his memories of travels he took during the decades he never knew his grandchildren and I was coping with the pressure of caring for my disabled brother and aging, slowly dying mother. I feel the flutter of annoyance, but it soon passes. I no longer expect him to be other than his is.
With the help of therapy with me as patient, and years of therapy with me as clinician, I’ve come to understand the enormous suffering caused by constantly comparing a constructed image of the should-be person to the actual person, as is. I’ve learned to let go of rigid ideas of how an experience should be and learned to greet the moment, as best I can, with attention to my feelings and more considered thoughts about possible responses.
Life isn’t easy or fair. We all have bodies that weaken and get ill. Unless we die young, we will get old. Nothing stays the same. We will lose all we ever loved. We will die. We can choose to be constantly irritated by life not meeting our expectations and stay in a state of constant frustration and anger. Or choose another path. Acceptance does not mean inaction. I see it as a decision to own our choices and no longer waste energy in empty outrage, telling ourselves, and anyone who will listen, over and over that it shouldn’t have happened, they shouldn’t have been that way, life should’ve unfolded differently. Better to use our time, energy and consciousness to address the situation, consider our interpretation and decide what course to take. We can choose actions that align with our values, speak out against actions that cause harm to ourselves and others, be mindfully aware of the consequences of what we and others do.
Our experience is our life. How we interpret our experience determines our life. I know, from accompanying others on their journey to the end, that life will narrow and the opportunity for annoyance will multiply. I’m gradually accepting the houses that have replaced the woods. I have chosen to have, for however long it lasts, a relationship with this person who is my father. There are limitations connected to my 70-year-old body that I’m learning to accept and others I’m working to adjust. Several friends have died this year and I am accepting that such losses will continue and increase.
I aim to strengthen my ability to greet what I imagine will be an abundance of annoyances. Things will inevitably not be what I wish they were. There will be disappointments, with myself, with others. Life will increasingly not coincide with my images of how things should be. However, I can choose not to be always irritated and railing against the annoyances, the difficulties inherent in aging. Utilizing an acceptance of what is, that includes actions that can be taken, I’ll do my best not to sink into being just a cranky old bitch. I’m practicing now.
I think I will drop off that card. The new neighbors might even adjust the light.
Gretta's book, Your Way There (To Being Fully Alive): Tools and Concepts for Mindful Transformation will be coming out soon. You can find out more here.
Elizabeth Allison, PhD, discovered her spirituality while playing outdoors as a child.
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