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Happy Accidents (Not Of the Procreating Variety)

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I took a printmaking class a few years ago and I had a fabulous teacher. The class only lasted for three months, but this teacher (and this class) managed to change my thinking in many ways. Every time I bend over to wipe something that has fallen on the floor, I think of her saying, “If you’re cleaning up your mess, clean up a little extra mess that you didn’t make. I do it, just because that’s the good kind of girl scout I am.” I don’t always actually FOLLOW the advice, but I always, always remember it.

Something non-mundane I learned in class, something that really has affected my way of being: the concept of happy accidents. “Happy accidents,” as defined by my teacher, are those great artistic discoveries that happen when you release some control of the process and allow yourself to be curious about what might happen. Being willing to be a beginner, to be open to trying new colors or ways of looking at the piece, of taking away your attachment to how the piece works out - these acts allow you the freedom to mess up - but also the possibility that you might discover something new: that you might fall in love with a new color you might have thought you hated, or that you find a new way of holding a tool that creates a totally different effect. Either way, you have to release the need to control every moment of the process in order to have happy accidents.

When I expand this metaphor to human life, I think about the space between control and openness. I believe that we need to have the ability to make choices in order to get to where we want to go. We need the structure of being able to say “no” and the ability to look ahead and see where we want to be, and create steps to get there. It is incredibly beneficial to have some mastery over how we spend our time and energy and resources. I firmly believe in these skills. I teach these skills to clients every day, for I believe they are essential.

However, when the control becomes TOO tight, we lose the chance of happy accidents. The happy accidents can teach us who we are, and what our hidden strengths and talents are, and, especially, clue us into the unique lens through which we view the world.

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Good point, Diane. I agree that things are rough right now, and it is a very normal reaction for folks to react to that difficulty by trying to hold on as tightly as possible. I think that things are ALWAYS out of our control, but we manage to fool ourselves most of the time because we are able to maintain the illusion. For instance, people we love can die, or economic or health situations can shift quickly in a heartbeat. But most of the time, if we stay busy enough, we can pretend that is not the case.

In times like this, however, we see the truth for what it is: our circumstances are much more precarious than they seem on the surface in good times. My question is this: did we ever have as much control as we thought we did? I guess that the control that I am thinking about is force-when are we being so set in our agenda that we miss the possibility that is out there. Sometimes we are impatient about letting things play out, and we make things more difficult for ourselves. I have a real tendency toward this one!:)

To me, the best way to deal with being in an out of control situation is to focus on the present moment. Focus on what I am grateful for, focus on what I have. Focus on the fact that I have survived difficulty in the past, and will figure it out. Panic and fear do not help. They create anxiety and, I believe, keep us from doing our best creative problem solving when we need it most. Rigidity makes it more tough, especially when times are dire. Flexibility, openness and adaptibility lead us to an agility of mind that we need right now.

July 6, 2009 - 4:46pm


What a wonderful Share. Thanks so much for writing it.

I wonder about this, however: Right now in our country, we have millions of people who have or are losing their jobs and/or homes. Those are traumatic occurrences that make people feel completely out of control. I would imagine that when much change is forced upon a person, their tendency is not to look for happy accidents, but rather to hold the reins more tightly.

What would you write to those people? Can they still do both?

June 30, 2009 - 8:53am
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