This is a re-post of a story from a couple of years ago. Alas, Mercury is in retrograde yet again! But I’ve figured out how to cope! I use this “three question” technique all the time. You oughta try it!
Mercury is in retrograde. That is my excuse—well, one of them, anyway. My new favorite. That’s why I feel like this.
I’m discombobulated—feeling lousy, anxious and discouraged. All tangled up in my emotions. It all came to a head—or headache, a few days ago, and I staggered out of my office and up the stairs and buried myself under the covers for the rest of the day and night. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently, Mercury had begun to move backward in the heavens the day before. I say “apparently” because it really only seems that way to us Earthlings. Since Mercury is so much closer to the sun than we are, its orbital speed is much faster and more elliptical. Mercury circles the sun in a brisk 88 days compared to Earth’s sluggish 365. So, three or four times a year, we seem to “catch up” and pass the planet, making it appear to back away from us. (Similar to passing a car on I-10. For a moment, even though the other car is traveling in the same direction, it seems, from our perspective in the faster-moving vehicle, that the other car is moving backward.)
That’s the simple astronomy on the subject. The astrology is far more complex. Many astrologers seem to think that retrograde motion is inauspicious, foreboding bad mojo because it goes against a planet’s natural movements. But since the planet isn’t really changing its motions at all, it all comes down to the way I see it. It’s only my perspective.
Hmmm. It’s only my perspective.
Back to that. My brand new best excuse for being in a lousy mood confuted by science. Damn.
But that’s okay. Mercury is in retrograde. And I am in a funk. And even if the two have nothing to do with each other scientifically, I still find it interesting to contemplate the metaphor on a psychological, even spiritual level.
It reminds me of Taylor when he was a little kid, wailing facetiously, “The Universe hates me!” when something would go wrong. He’s 20 now, and he still says that and laughs every time he spills something or can’t find his keys.
And I’m 57, and I’m embarrassed to say that I take on that attitude sometimes myself. I dare not say the words out loud, but a couple of things go wrong, and suddenly I’m in victim mode—“The universe hates me. Mercury is forever in retrograde! There is no hope!” Like the character, Glum, on the Gulliver’s Travels cartoon “We’re doomed, we’ll never make it!”
I’m not usually so fatalistic, and I don’t think anyone would describe me as a pessimist. But I still manage to find myself ruminating on occasion, pandering to a dour mood until it morphs into something pathologically akin to depression. That is dangerous for me. I know this about myself, and it behooves me to take action just as soon as I hear the dismal voice of Glum looping through my thoughts. The longer I wait, the more convinced I become that Mercury is indeed hurtling backward through space, and the natural order of things is forever destroyed and “we’re doomed!”
I have devised a system. It may seem a little hokey, but I swear, it works for me. But first I have to accept the science—or in this case the psychology—that the way I perceive things when I’m in a foul mood, is never the whole story, and often not even a true story. (The planets are not reversing directions.)
For me, bad moods are sticky. They often start with some unfortunate-seeming event or interaction, like a disagreement with a family member, or a technology malfunction, or even a restless night’s sleep. And then, if I don’t take action pretty quick, if I let myself brood about it, all kinds of dark thoughts and apprehensions glom onto my psyche, and I become a big blob of grimness and uselessness. And then, because I know that I’ve become grim and useless, I isolate. Nobody wants to hang out with Eeyore. But hiding out when I’m feeling morose, is the single WORST thing I can do, given my psychology.
So I find myself in this vicious circle—I don’t want to interact with you because I don’t want to inconvenience you with my sucky attitude. And I perpetuate a really sucky attitude because I refuse to interact with you—my friends, my support system.
So this is what I’ve been doing. Ironically, in order to get myself out of my head, I have to start in my head where all that mess is festering. I ask myself three very specific questions, and I make myself write down the answers. The questions are designed to help me get to the truth, the bigger truth that resides within us all—and yes, friends, the truth will set you free.
The first question I ask, on those mornings when I feel like I’m being sucked into a downward spiral, is this: What went right yesterday? (Or last week, or at that ridiculous business meeting, or during that tense family gathering) What went right? Something always went right. I write it down.
The second question is this: Who was a blessing to me yesterday? (Or this morning at the gym, or in line at Publix, or at my own dinner table) Who contributed to my life in a positive way? Once again, I can always think of someone who has encouraged or embraced me in some way. I jot it down.
And the third, and most challenging question is this: How did I shine? Of course, when I’m feeling like Eeyore, it is hard to see past the gloom, but there is never a day when I completely suck at life. I love the old gag—“I’m not a complete failure; some parts are missing.” I write down that missing piece.
When I started this little exercise, I wrote in my journal, “I’d almost be embarrassed to tell people I’m doing this.” It seems, on the surface, a little reductive and certainly cliché. It smacks of “affirmations” and “gratitude lists” and “the power of positive thinking”—all of which can be helpful psychological and spiritual tools—but lacking, for me, the specificity I need to get to the truth of who I am and what I’m going through.
My three questions deal with personal issues I have identified that tend to keep me stuck—cognitive distortions, psychologists call them. For instance, I can tend to catastrophize—that is, to view a situation as far worse than it actually is, and then paint the whole day or week or even month, with that tainted paintbrush. When I make myself pay attention to “What went right?” it helps to brighten the landscape of my thoughts. It adds perspective and dimension.
Also, I tend to hibernate, or isolate myself, when my thoughts run muddy—in part, as I mentioned earlier so that I won’t burden you with my sullenness. But I confess that it is also because being bummed out is exhausting; I can’t be bothered. Still, simply knowing that I will be asking the question, “Who was a blessing to me?” makes it necessary for me to interact with real people daily. (Though, in a pinch, Sheldon or Leonard or Howard or Penny can fill in because they make me laugh.)
And finally, I find that the common denominator for nearly every mood of mine that runs amok is shame. My self-esteem takes a hit, and the longer I wallow in my distorted thoughts, the more hostile I become toward myself. The line between feeling bad and being bad begins to blur. And then I’m in real trouble.
But the truth, the real truth, is that I am not bad. And so I write down something lovely about myself to prove it. How did I shine? I’m reminded of my favorite prayer: “Dear God, please help me to accept the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful.” Yes, rumor has it that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made.” And so are you.
This may seem like a whole lot of work to go through for a simple attitude adjustment. Why not, as my friend’s mom used to tell her, “Put on some happy music, and get over it”? Oh, I do that that too. That’s another tool in the box right next to “Big Bang Theory” reruns, searching for seashells on the beach, and shopping for shoes. But sometimes I need more.
Especially now that Mercury is in Retrograde. I can recognize that the way it seems is not always the way it is. And I can appreciate the difference between being sad—a sometimes-necessary and natural response to disheartening events—and being morose, a useless, even dangerous emotional state of being. I can and should do something about the latter.
I had a “bad” day. Or so I labeled it at first glance. It seemed that someone I love had taken a brutal passive-aggressive jab at me and drawn blood. Then my computer crashed. I got an excruciating migraine and went to bed. I woke up the next morning feeling both physically and emotionally hung-over, but I didn’t want to squander another minute feeling sorry for myself. So I asked myself my questions:
What went right yesterday? Well, on that Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, I also got the news that my dear, dear friend’s blood-work came back cancer-free again.
Who was a blessing to me? Someone I don’t even know—a follower of this blog whose comment on my story helped me to feel understood and appreciated.
And how did I shine? Ha! I remained kind when treated with contempt. I didn’t lash out. I actually wrote a little sign and taped it to the wall above my desk that says, “High Road. Take it.” And I did.
I don’t have time to wait another two weeks for Mercury to resume it’s prograde—or west-to-east—motion through my night sky so that I can relax. And though I’m not an astronomer or physicist, I find that I don’t have to understand the cosmos to have faith in the stars.
No matter how it seems from my puny perspective here on Earth, the Universe does not hate me. I am beautifully made. And so are you.
Try it. For four days. Ask yourself these three questions every morning. It’s important to jot down your answers. Even one sentence. See if Mercury doesn’t start to behave again.
The artwork at the top of this post is from my brother Jem’s amazing portfolio. He draws what I feel. I love and admire him more than words—or pictures, can say. Jem Sullivan