One evening, many years ago, my then-14-year-old daughter Stephanie went for a walk with a friend, promising me she would be back home before 10 p.m. I didn’t pay much attention to the clock until the 10o’clock news ended and I realized that she hadn’t come home yet. I started to get nervous and irritated. I began pacing the house, wondering what to do. At 11:30 I got in my car and started cruising the neighborhood looking for her. My thoughts were understand a blyanxious, part fear and part anger. Finally, at 11:45, I drove back past my own house and saw her silhouette in the window. She was home and safe.
But I kept driving. I realized that I was thinking completely pessimistically about the entire incident and I needed to keep thinking before I talked to her. As I drove along I observed all the pessimism I was wallowing in: “She doesn’t respect me. She can’t keep a promise.My rules and requests mean nothing. This is the tip of the iceberg. I’m going to have problems with her for the next four years at least. Who knows where she went and what she was doing? Were drugs involved? Sex? Crime? I’m losing sleep over this. This is ruining my peace of mind and my life. Et cetera.”
By recognizing how pessimistic my thoughts were, I was able to let the thoughts play completely out before taking a deep breath and telling myself, “Okay. That’s one side of the argument. Now it’s time to explore the other side.” One of my favorite tricks for flipping my mind over to the optimistic side is to ask myself the question: "How can I use this?"How could I use this incident to improve my relationship with my daughter? How could I make my rules and requests more meaningful to us both? I began to build my case for optimism. I realized that great relationships are built by incidents like these. They are not built by theoretical conversations—but by difficult experiences and what we learn and gain from them.
So I decided to drive a little while longer and let her wait inside. I was sure that by now her sister had told her that I was out looking for her, so she was now the one pacing and anxious. Let her sweat a little, I thought, while I continue to think things through.
I continued to reflect upon my past relationship with Stephanie. One of the great aspects of it was Stephanie’s honesty. She had always radiateda quiet and confident kind of serenity about life, and found it easy to be honest with her own feelings and honest with other people. Whenever there had been incidents with other children, teachers, or other parents involved in some misunderstanding, I could always count on Stephanie to tell me the truth. Asking her about what happened always saved me a lot of time.
As I drove the dark neighborhood I also ran through my happiest memories of Stephanie as a little girl, how much I loved her and how proud I was of her when I went to her concerts or talked to her teachers. I recalled the time in grade school when I embarrassed her by asking her principal if he would consider re-naming the school after her. (She had just won an academic award of some kind and I was intoxicated with pride.)
Finally my mind was completely won over to the optimistic side. “How can I use this?” gave me the idea that this incident could be made into something bigger than it seemed—a new commitment to each other to keep agreements and trust each other.
When I finally got home I could see that she was scared. She tried to blame the incident on her not having a watch. She wanted me to appreciate that, somehow, she was a victim of the whole incident. I listened patiently and then I told her I thought it was a much bigger deal than that. I talked about my relationship with her and how I had cherished her truthfulness throughout her childhood. I told her that I thought we might have lost all of that tonight. That we might have to figure a way to start over.
“It’s not that big a deal,” she protested. But I told her that I thought it was a very big deal, because it was all about our relationship and whether we were going to keep agreements with each other.I told Stephanie I wanted her to be as happy as she could possibly be, and the only way I could really help that happen would be if we kept agreements with each other. I told her how scared I was, how angry I was, how her staying out had ruled out a good night’s sleep for me. I asked her to try to understand. I talked about our life together when she was a little girl, and I reminded her how extraordinarily truthful she was.I mentioned a few incidents when she got in trouble but how I had gone right to her for the truth and always got it.
We talked for a long time that night, and she finally saw that coming home when she says she’s coming home—indeed, doing what she says she’s going to do—is a really “big deal.” It’s everything.
Since that incident and conversation, Stephanie has been extremely sensitive to keeping her word. If she goes out and promises to be back at a certain time, she takes along a watch or makes certain some one she’s with has one. The “incident” that night is something neither of us will forget, because it got us clear on the idea of trust and agreements.You could even say that it was a good thing.
We have heard of so many incidents where bad events in retrospect were strokes of great fortune. A person who broke her leg skiing met a doctor in the hospital, fell in love, married him, and had a happy relationship for life. Because most of us have experienced a number of these incidents, we’re aware of the dynamic. What seems bad (like a broken leg) turns out unexpectedly great. We begin to see the truth that every problem carries a gift inside it.
By choosing to make use of seemingly bad events, you can access that gift much sooner. By asking yourself “How can I use this?” or “What might be good about this?” you can turn your life around on a dime.