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Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. – Focus on Making Small Changes

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.:  When you try to change your entire life in a day, chances are slim unless you’re being taken into the Witness Protection Program. 

And when you think about the effort that change takes, it can be paralyzing.  But there’s a much gentler option. Let a story about my friend and colleague nurse-researcher Dr. Janet Quinn, author of I Am a Woman Finding My Voice, tell you more.

Once upon a time, Janet went to Australia to spend a week with a group of aboriginal elders. One day they piled into a van to search the arid outback for bush tucker (Australian for “food”). Items such as Witchety grubs and honey ants may seem unattractive to Westerners, but they’re delicacies in the outback.

The van was bouncing along a rutted road when suddenly it slowed way down. There was a camel in front, loping along at its own slow pace. The driver honked. The camel went faster. Then it slowed down again, apparently unconcerned about the van on its tail. The cycle of honking, trotting, and slowing down was repeated over and over again. The sight of Janet imitating the wagging gait of the camel’s behind can’t be captured in words, but perhaps you get the picture.

As she sat in the van, contemplating the dromedary, it occurred to Janet that there were miles of uninhabited land in every direction, yet the camel stayed on the road. If it had made the tiniest adjustment to its course—even a fraction of a degree—it would have had endless miles of unmolested space to roam in, and there would be respite from the honking and trotting. But apparently the camel hadn’t thought this through, and it kept to its uncomfortable course.

A lot of people do the same thing. You may be stressed and unhappy about the course of your life, but you just keep on walking in the same direction. When I’ve asked people why they don’t change their circumstances, the most common response is “fear.” They know the box that they’re stuck in. Even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s at least familiar. But if they change, there’s a chance that the unknown will be worse than their current situation. The enemy you know seems safer than the enemy you don’t know. The second most common reason why people fear change is that they feel overwhelmed by the amount of work it will take. But think of the camel. A change in course of just a fraction of a degree would have resulted in unlimited freedom.

I knew a working mother named “Shawna” whose dream was to become a nurse, but for years she was like the camel and stayed on her old course. She had a lot of valid reasons: School takes time and costs money. How could she and her son possibly survive if she quit work to study?

Then Shawna took a small step. Since her job paid for continuing-education courses at the local community college, she signed up for biology and loved it. The professor alerted her to a scholarship for older women entering nursing, and Shawna applied and was accepted. Student loans covered most of her living expenses, and she waited tables twice a week to cover the rest. Shawna became a nurse during the recent shortage. The hospital she signed on with gave her a cash bonus large enough to pay off most of her loans. One small change . . . and unimaginable opportunities opened up.

Psychologist Ellen Langer discovered that people who try new things are healthier and happier than those who stay in a rut. Even choosing a different route home from work benefits you. In her book,Mindfulness, she makes the point that variety keeps us engaged in life. You might be able to zone out if you’ve taken the same route a hundred times, but if you’re on unfamiliar turf, you have to stay tuned in. Tuning in encourages curiosity and results in a more adventurous life. An acquaintance of mine chose to drive a new way to work one day and got rear-ended in a traffic jam. But all’s well that ends well. She married the man who slammed into her.

This week, try making two small changes every day. Take a different street to work, turn off the television for an evening, go to a restaurant that serves exotic food, change your brand of toothpaste, smile at someone you don’t know, show up at work wearing Groucho Marx glasses, go to a different supermarket, get a more daring hairdo, eat dessert first, or buy or borrow a piece of clothing in a color you never wear. The possibilities are endless.

At the end of the week, reflect on what these little changes produced. Then think about your life. If you’re in a rut like Janet’s camel, identify one small step you might take toward change. There’s a whole lot of landscape to explore once you leave the beaten path.

(Excerpted from Chapter 20 of Inner Peace for Busy People by Joan Borysenko
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