The other day I was waiting in line for coffee deciding if I should get cranky or keep my cool. Seems like it should be an obvious choice, because anger is not going to help me get my beverage any faster and might make me and possibly those around me upset. Still, I was having trouble choosing because there is power and self-righteousness in irritation. In an often ambivalent world anger can fill you with purpose and direction. “I want my coffee now and nothing else matters!”
Suddenly I flashed to the Cherokee legend about two wolves. It's the one where the nice grandpa is telling his grandson that we all have good and evil inside of us in the form of two separate wolves. One wolf is patience, kindness, peace, joy and love. The other is anger, arrogance, regret, self-pity. The grandpa tells the boy that these two wolves are constantly struggling with each other.
“Who wins?” the boy asks.
“The one I feed,” says old wisey-pants.
So I mentally created my patience wolf. He was strong and furry with a big sloppy grin. He liked to be petted and so I stroked him in my mind. He enjoys bacon and chocolate peanut butter ice cream, so I filled his dish with all his favorite treats (which also happen to be my favorites, go figure). I watched him eat and then jump around wanting to play with me. My patience wolf knows how to juggle and also likes to dance. He is so cute!
My wolfie play-date was interrupted by the barista asking me for order. As if by magic I was at the front of the line and it was my turn. My patience wolf winked at me before he trotted off into the background of my mind. I'm not sure what my cranky wolf was up to, probably off somewhere pouting and plotting his next attack. Maybe hanging out on congested freeways and in overcrowded doctor’s waiting rooms getting riled up. Pissed-off wolf is always gonna be there, but I can choose not to play with him and not to feed him either (or maybe just feed him really healthy stuff that he doesn't like that much. Angry wolf gets kale and plain chicken breasts only).
Since that day I've had more play-dates with my good wolf and he has always helped me make the better choice. Analytically speaking I think there are a few different reasons for his power and ability to help me.
Pausing to imagine the antics of my good wolf, to consider what he might like to eat and put a nice meal in his bowl, to watch him juggle some happy squirrels, all of these mental activities distract me from whatever situation I can't control or change. In the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment the kids who were best able to distract themselves were more likely to exercise self-control, thereby earning the second marshmallow and eventually becoming more successful adults. For me not descending to anger is the ultimate two marshmallow reward.
Stopping to decide which wolf I want to play with breaks the angry momentum. I can now consciously decide what I want to do, instead of just reacting in a habitual way. Hooray for freedom and options!
When I think of the two wolves, I think of the Native Americans and when I think of the Native Americans and all they have endured, whatever my little struggle is does not seem like such a big deal.
Asking for help
Asking for help, even from ourselves and our own imaginations, has really powerful effects. It's a form of prayer and a way of connecting to the larger world. Asking for help makes us feel less alone in our struggles and that is the first step toward reacting in a kind and conscientious way.
The silly effect
It's hard to stay seriously mad when you’re imagining a wolf in a tutu juggling. I'm not saying it's not possible, but it takes some real effort.
So the next time you start getting cranky and irritated conjure up your wolves and decide which one you want to play with. I think you'll find there’s enough coffee, bacon and ice cream for everyone.