You Always Have Choices

I do my TV watching in hotel rooms. On a typical business trip, I’ll put in two solid hours a night clicking compulsively, looking for ever-greater doses of stimulation. Most of the time, it’s a big waste — which reinforces my decision and determination not to let a TV set into my home Almost always, I wake up the next morning feeling tired and guilty. But every once in a while, I do come across something good and sustaining. Not long ago, for example, I flicked onto a Larry King interview with Bette Midler. She was talking about a falling out she’d had with Barry Manilow.

Apparently, Barry had tricked her into singing on a talk show even though it is “well known” that she doesn’t like surprises. Her reaction to the surprise was so bitchy that it ruined the bit and Barry stopped talking to her. When she asked him why, he said something like this: “There are many times in our lives when we have to deal with bad news. You have a choice when that happens. You can kvetch about it and make yourself and everyone else miserable. Or you can summon up some courage and smile. You made the wrong choice. I don’t want to be friends with a person who makes such choices.” “But he knew you didn’t like surprises,” Larry King said. “Yes,” Bette replied. “Yet he was right. I could have had a good time with it, but I didn’t. And that cost me a friendship — at least until I repaired it.

Nowadays, when I find myself in a difficult situation, I realize I have a choice.” This is such an important lesson. One I relearned this past week. Not, as Bette did, by dealing with unexpected trouble but by figuring out how to deal with a kind of trouble I know very well: a visit from my dad. My dad is a very likeable person. He is charming and intelligent and good-natured. Just about everyone who knows him likes him. Women are his special friends. Even though he’s 83 years old, they cannot escape his “je ne sais quoi.” I like him too. And I love him. But there are things he does that annoy me just a little. The way he takes the high road when expressing his liberal political views. That he forgets he’s told that me that story 18 times before. I am even bothered by the little bits of food that get caught in the creases of his mouth. None of these things seems to bother my brothers and sisters. The problem lies with me. I have developed reactions to my father’s peccadilloes that are exaggerated and uncontrollable. He does something that I find annoying, and then I react to it in a way he is sure to notice. If he comments on my behavior, I shoot back.

One little comment leads to another — and before we know it, we are in an argument or, worse, ensnared in silence. It’s a miserable cycle. One that does neither of us any good. For years, I’ve recognized how useless and costly this pattern is — yet, I’ve made little progress in breaking it. But since listening to that five-minute clip between Bette Midler and Larry King — well, I’ve had some success. It came from accepting the fact that my dad isn’t going to change his habits. (And, at his age, who would ask him to?) But I can choose how I react to them. Our relationship can improve without his having to do something. I can make the difference. Yesterday, for example, we took a three-hour drive together without a single incident. Not a negative comment was made. Not an eyebrow rose. It took some energy to make it happen, but it was very well spent. In fact, it felt the way I want it to be between us.

Here’s what I did to break the pattern:

First, I stopped myself each time he “triggered” a reaction. I said to myself, “You have a choice here. You can do what you always do and respond with a wisecrack or criticism. Or you can let it pass.” Next, I counted to 10. This is a very old trick . . . but it works. In fact, I just read a newspaper article by an anger-management specialist, a psychologist, who said that counting to 10 is one of the best techniques he’s ever used with his patients.

Then, whenever I possibly could, I said something positive. This didn’t happen after every one of his comments. And it didn’t need to. But when I could say something lighthearted and upbeat, I did it. And it put us both in a good mood. A guy named Fred Woodworth once said, “The human tendency prefers familiar horrors to unknown delights.” That is depressingly true in too many of our most important relationships. Instead of having the guts to choose some new and better reaction, we take the beaten path and end up with the tired and beaten relationship played out one more time. If you wait for tomorrow, as my Chadian friend Peter used to tell me, tomorrow will never come. If you don’t wait for tomorrow, it will come. So it is with changing the patterns of your life.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]