Deer in target
Illustration: Sean McCabe
Your tire blew out on the freeway. Your wallet's been stolen. There's a deer in aisle one, next to the unsalted cashews. Don't just stand there—freak out! Rational ways to weather life's big and little snafus.
The military has given the English language two words that brilliantly articulate different types of crises: The first is snafu, an acronym for "situation normal, all f***ed up." The second is fubar, which stands for "f***ed up beyond all recognition." As we travel the bumpy road of life, we must prepare to deal with both. Fubar situations are huge disasters, the kind that come with an implicit "get out of normal obligations free" card and often require a rethinking of where your future is headed. Smaller snafu crises—the broken toe, the stolen wallet, the babysitter quitting on short notice—can be incredibly disruptive, but usually they're not life changing; they're more likely month changing or 10-weeks-of-Vicodin disruptive. But a short-term crisis is still a crisis, so here's how to weather your next snafu.

Go Ahead and Freak Out

One fine day in 2006, a wild deer wandered into a Target store in West Des Moines. He skidded around like Bambi on ice for 20 minutes, until employees herded him through the automatic doors to freedom. On surveillance videos, the deer is wearing an expression I've seen on many human faces during minor crises—a look that says, "I feel fine, but what the...?"

I mention this because there's one way in which deer handle crises better than humans—at least according to Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma author Peter Levine, PhD, who holds two doctorates, one in psychology, one in medical and biological physics. Early in his research, Levine noticed that when animals are traumatized—even a little bit—they react by trembling, running, kicking, and thrashing around, which is what that deer did. Meanwhile, human Target shoppers reacted with stiffness and consternation, because we generally try to subdue physical "emergency" reactions.

After falling down stairs or arguing with a co-worker, we make every effort to keep our eyes, voices, and hands steady, determined to show through our physical motionlessness that we're in complete control of our bodies, moods, and lives (no matter how many Xanax this requires).

Levine noted that people who have physical emergency reactions often cope better with crisis, and show fewer symptoms of trauma afterward, than people who hold still. Stress compels action; in snafu situations, Mother Nature gives just one instruction to all her children, and that instruction is, "Move!" When the unexpected strikes, find a private space and let your body do whatever it wants. Heave, kick, shake your head like a wet cat. Then let that energy flow into constructive action, whether it's contesting a credit card charge, yanking cactus spines out of your child, or slapping duct tape on a broken pipe.

I got a chance to test this advice when one of my car tires blew out. After regaining control of the fishtailing vehicle, then coaxing it over to the freeway shoulder, I went a little crazy, shuddering and shouting incoherently for about 10 seconds. Sure enough, this seemed to open up a channel to calm. Feeling very alert, I got out and changed that tire with my own profoundly nonmechanical hands. I drove away feeling so empowered, so conscious of life's fragility, that even the disruption of my schedule hardly bothered me. I do believe letting myself have those initial 10 seconds of physical freak-out cleared my mind and body for positive action. Thank you, Dr. Levine.

Next: How to let go of your expectations

Release Your Expectations

Not all problems are this quickly resolved. My flat tire rearranged my day, but you may have a disaster that lingers for weeks or months, such as your brother-in-law. The situation, whatever or whoever it is, will eventually be resolved, but in the meantime it requires accommodation.

Realizing this is like being turned upside down. We hear our plans falling out of our pockets and smashing into countless questions: "How will I meet my deadline?" "Who'll walk the dogs?" "Can I even tie my shoes with this cast on my arm?" Our knee-jerk reaction is often defiant refusal to let go of expectations: Somehow, we insist, we will stick to our schedule.

I've heard you can trap a monkey by putting a banana in a jar, then punching a hole in the lid just wide enough for the animal's hand—not wide enough, that is, for the hand plus a banana. The monkey's refusal to release the banana is what keeps it stuck. This is what happens when we hang on to expectations in the face of crisis, and it can turn a snafu into an utterly fubar situation. Working when you're sick, you end up in the hospital. Rushing tasks after a slowdown, you drop or break or miscalculate something crucial. Pushing yourself beyond emotional limits, you lash out and damage a relationship.

Conversely, learning to let go of expectations is a ticket to peace. It allows us to ride over every crisis—small or large, brother-in-law or end-of-quarter office lockdown—like a beach ball on water. The next time a problem arises in your life, take a deep breath, let out a sigh, and replace the thought "Oh no!" with the thought "Okay." If it's hard to sustain this perspective, go immediately to step 3.

Narrow Your Time Aperture

It took me decades to learn how to surrender expectations. I wanted to let go; I just didn't know the procedure. Then a meditation teacher put it in terms I could understand. Imagine, he said, that your life is going badly—you're underpaid, and you've just discovered that your spouse has started smoking. You go for a walk in the woods, trying to clear your head. Anxiety eats at you: Should you demand a raise? What if your spouse gets lung cancer? Troubling scenarios spin out in your mind. You can't stop worrying.

Then you walk around a rock, and there it is: a bear.

At that moment, it becomes almost magically easy to stop obsessing about your lousy job and your spouse's lungs. You have no trouble surrendering your worries—in fact, as you sprint back to the safety of your SUV, you let go of verbal thought altogether. You've attained the enviable clarity meditators call one-pointed attention.

This is how you let go of expectations: by giving full attention to the snafu at hand. Forget about finishing your errands and focus on holding this bandage to this cut, right here, right now, until the bleeding stops. Do what is needed with full concentration: Find the spare tire, turn off the water valve, call your therapist. Be here now, and you'll realize there's nowhere else you ever need to be.

Next: The new way to make new plans

Make Loosey-Goosey Plans

As you focus on the present, you'll find the next step arises almost automatically, and then the one after that. Your thought as you run from the bear is to reach the car. Your aim as you press on a wound is to stop the bleeding. Unlike plans made in calmer circumstances, which may be detailed, researched, and rigid, the ones you make when facing snafus should be so loose that they're almost floppy.

One year, when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I decided to run the Boston marathon. On a snowy afternoon, I took a bus to Wellesley, which lies at the halfway point of the marathon route. The idea was to run home, both training and familiarizing myself with the terrain. I overlooked only one thing: I have absolutely no sense of direction. After running for an hour, I noticed that Boston was not where I thought it was. After two hours, I was jogging past eerie, deserted factories. After three hours, my world was empty country roads in a pitch-dark blizzard.

Peter Levine would have been proud of the way I eventually freaked out, stomping, kicking, and, yes, using strong language. My tantrum freed me to release my expectations of knocking this off in a few hours and accept that I was well and truly lost. This allowed me to narrow my focus to the immediate situation, and I immediately formulated a plan: Retrace my route by following my own footprints. It worked for a half hour, until the falling snow obscured my tracks. By then I could hear the rumbling of motors, so my approach changed: Follow the noise. This took me to a freeway, from which I could see a distant glow of city lights. I followed them to downtown Boston, where, switching strategies one last time, I caught the subway home. Staying loose and flexible not only got me through a snafu but proved I could run for six straight hours. After that the marathon was a cakewalk.

The plans that take us out of short-term crises almost always proceed like this. A strategy that works well one moment is useless the next. That's okay. Keep moving. Keep letting go of expectations. Keep your attention on the here and now, and keep adjusting. And finally, refuse to contemplate the distant future until the snafu is over. Cancel lunch, obsess later about the social fallout. Look in the yellow pages under "flood repair" without wondering how much it will eventually cost to replace your carpet.

The difference between unthinkable disasters and short-term crises is that if you follow these instructions, life snaps back to being surprisingly normal surprisingly quickly. Think what that deer must have felt as he roamed the aisles of Target, wondering why the humans were forcing him toward a wall of glass and metal. Imagine his gratification when he finally triggered the door sensor. That's the way a minor crisis ends. It's almost anticlimactic: You look up from the one step that has your full attention and realize you're out of the woods. Or, if you're a deer, back in the woods. Back, in any case, to the world you're used to, where snafus are typical and things occasionally get fubar, but where you feel in your DNA that things are exactly as they should be.

Martha Beck is the author of The Four-Day Win (Rodale).

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