How To Lift Yourself Out of a Foul Mood
Recently my life took a negative 180-degree turn—I went from feeling like a contented cat to a grumpy gorilla in a matter of hours. You all know, I am not a complainer. I frequently comment that older people are happier now then when we were younger—we’re happier than people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. But after several days of difficult, unpleasant events, one quickly following another, I found myself down, in a dark mood that I just couldn’t shake.
Here is what happened. First, I was placed in “partial quarantine” by my retirement community. That meant Peter and I couldn’t eat in the dining room for seven days because we had been exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid. Not a huge deal, but annoying nonetheless because dinner in the dining rooms is our time to socialize and have fun.
Then the news about Omicron turned depressing. Omicron will last for months and we will still be wearing our masks next winter.
Next, my runaway printer. I was printing out a 150-page document. When it finished, the printer just kept ongoing. I pushed cancel but the pages kept coming. Page after page spilling onto the floor. I swore and tried some different keys and swore some more. At about page seventy of the second printing, it ran out of paper. But I kept on berating myself: How could I not know how to turn off a printer. What is wrong with me? I don’t know what to do. I hate being so helpless. It’s so true about the old dog and the new tricks.
Then the next day, I had an upsetting memory failure. When I woke up from a long nap, it suddenly occurred to me I’d forgotten today was when my serious book group met. Looking at the clock, I realized I had missed the entire meeting! I am losing it. Dementia? I feel so embarrassed and stupid.
At this point, I’m feeling stuck in my funk. Maybe a brisk walk in the wintry fresh air will give me a new outlook. I bundle up and head out. I slip a bit on an icy patch … uh oh, this is too dangerous for an 87-year-old. So I retreat indoors still wrapped in my blues. I decide to exercise inside, but when I get to the fitness room, the bike I ride is out of order. Frustration is setting in.
I tried to meditate, another sure-fire mood changer. But, I’m too unsettled and give up after five minutes.
I often advise when you are feeling down, “the best thing to do is to do something helpful for somebody else.” Luckily, I had already signed up for a good works project for prisoners who were about to be released from prison. We were to fill some backpacks with toiletries and all sorts of useful objects to help start their new lives. Maybe this would address my slump.
Minutes before our start time, our contact from the prison called – they would be an hour late. I was mildly annoyed. But I could cancel my soon-to-start exercise class because I really wanted to do this project. Then another phone call and another delay. By the time the backpacks arrived, I was tied up at an appointment. How inconsiderate they were. Really frustrating. But I shut down my complaints almost immediately: Oh come on, Katharine! There really is no problem. You are making a mountain out of a molehill.
I went to my meeting of retired therapists still feeling tense. During our check-in, Nancy told us how after buying too much expensive stuff for her house, she got unnecessarily angry at a store owner. And worse, she couldn’t let go of the incident, and it was hurting her self-image as a sage elder. She was, she added, a “failed crone.” That struck me and the others in the group as hilarious. We laughed and laughed. I had such a huge belly laugh, I could hardly breathe. “Failed crone” was just what I was feeling about myself. I was failing old age. I wasn’t a wise older woman—I was an incompetent, irritable, and forgetful person.
And in a flash, my mood changed. The laughter put me back in touch with a kinder, more peaceful me. I could suddenly look at all my reactions—to the quarantine, my printer, the backpack fiasco, and see how none of them mattered much at all in the grand scheme of life. I needed to cut myself some slack. And also to cut some slack for the people who were supposed to bring the backpacks. Actually, all of us, deserve some slack.
It was a few hours later when I thought of The Guest House, a poem that I have loved for years, by Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi mystic:
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
So, what is my point and Rumi’s point? We need to entertain all our visiting moods. We can’t choose what we feel. We will get stuck if we don’t welcome our negative and unpleasant feelings. They must be embraced before we can move on. And growing old is not all joy! joy! joy! Older people may be wiser than ever before, and many of us are truly happy, but we will still have losses. It is all part of the human condition, the human comedy if you can see it.
I’ll leave you with a final insight from monk and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh who sums up my whole piece in four words: No mud, no lotus.