“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” -Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt was truly an American original. Despite being born in extreme wealth in he year 1858, Roosevelt knew suffering and hardship. He suffered from ill health, almost dying multiple times as a child from asthma. He entered his teenage years at about 90 pounds, was forced to wear thick eyeglasses because of his terrible vision, and was the epitome of what later became known as the “97 pound weakling.” His father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was worried that despite the family’s affluence, he wouldn’t be able to protect his son indefinitely. By age 13 his father had him embarking on a regimen of physical fitness that included daily exercise, weight training and, after young Teddy took an embarrassing beating from two bullies, boxing. By the time Teddy entered Harvard University in 1876, he had built himself into a remarkable physical specimen. Upon leaving New York for Boston his father advised him to, “Take care of your morals first, your health, and finally your studies.”
Roosevelt was married for the first time on his 22nd birthday. Two years later his wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, died in childbirth, and 11 hours later Roosevelt’s mother, Mittie, died of typhoid fever. In typical Roosevelt fashion, he went through a period of deep depression for a period of approximately a month, emerging from it with resolve to do the best he could with what he had.
“People are doing the best they can with the resources they have available.”- Unknown
This quote, from an unknown author, is one that is quite frequently dismissed by those who hear it. I’m not sure where I first heard it, possibly from my mother growing up, or from some of the nuns that taught me in elementary school. I do know that, for most of my life, I didn’t believe it. Almost 20 years ago I had a career change and became a practicing counselor and psychotherapist. As part of my job I have interviewed thousands of people, and spent countless hours asking them probing questions about their motivation. I’ve come to the conclusion that the above statement is, more often than not, pretty accurate. I’ve also, much like Teddy Roosevelt, concluded that the biggest challenge anyone can have in life is to take personal responsibility, as much as possible, for their life and their behavior, regardless of their circumstances.
I’ve interviewed a everything from doctors, lawyers, ministers, murderers, prostitutes, and white-collar criminals. Many of them will admit in the solitude of a counseling session that they have done some pretty terrible things while trying to cope with some pretty horrific circumstances. The common thread in most of these behaviors is that, at the time, what they did seemed like a good idea, or at least the best choice they had in the moment. The therapeutic challenge in working with such people is to present them with better options and choices. For some, these choices are presented through the careful give and take and introspection of psychotherapy. For others, the best course of action is the legal system or the natural consequences of their behaviors. The reality is that some people’s minds are wired in such a way that criminal behavior does not result in feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse. I’ve seen it in clients and it’s pretty scary. In some instances the behavioral control provided by the legal system is the only way to correct dangerous behaviors. Other times, the client has to fail a number of times and learn from the natural consequences of bad choices. In both cases however, the statement is true. Regardless of how bizarre it may seem to most of us, they believe they are doing the best they can and making the best choice available to them at the time.
The point here is to take the two similar quotes, one from Theodore Roosevelt and the other from some unknown sage, and find some practical application. In times of crisis, overwhelm, and despair, we would all do well to break down Roosevelt’s advice and try to follow it to the best of our ability. Quite often, when life gets a little overwhelming, we ask ourselves questions that disempower us and make the situation worse than it needs to be. “Why me,? Why now,? What’s next,? Now what,?” are just some of the kinds of instinctual thoughts we have, or are things that we say silently or out loud. This normal human reaction, however, needs to be nipped in the bud as soon as these thoughts are recognized. If you examine most of the automatic negative thoughts that you have in a crisis situation, you’ll probably find that most are disempowering and counterproductive. The key is to ask yourself questions that empower, rather than disempower, allowing you to do the best you can, with what you have, where you are.
Self-help guru, Tony Robbins, often states that the quality of our life is determined, to a large degree, from the kind of questions that we ask ourselves. In order to problem solve more efficiently, we have to ask ourselves better questions. Self imposed questions should be focused on solutions, rather than the current negative situation that you find yourself in. The first step is acceptance of your current situation or negative emotion. Please note that acceptance does not mean rolling over and playing dead, (See http://mindbodycoach.org/acceptance-true-wisdom/ ), it simply means not going into denial. Acceptance places you in the “where you are,” portion of Roosevelt’s advice. It means you recognize and acknowledge the current, unpleasant situation.
Better quality questions tend to be solution focused. “How can this be resolved?” “Who or what might be able to help me with this?” “Where can I get information and help to deal with this?” It’s often quite helpful to sit down with a pen and a notebook and put these thoughts down on paper, literally creating a roadmap to get yourself out of the situation or to solve the problem. Sometimes, the exercise allows you to notice that you are overreacting, in the moment, to a situation that is not going to be a big deal in a day, month, or a year. Asking yourself some questions and putting those random, disjointed thoughts on paper, often allows you to realize that the solution is to simply let go of your emotional attachment in a “this, too, shall pass” manner. If you are more visual, then drawing a picture, chart, or a diagram to assist is often helpful. It is important that, when asking yourself these questions, you write down your thoughts in some way, as this leads to a clarity of thought and objectivity that is not available to you through self talk. This activity emphasizes the “what you have” portion of Roosevelt’s advice.
The final phase of this activity is to implement a plan of action. Things don’t always go according to plan, so be flexible. Be willing to change the process while maintaining focus on the goal. The idea is to problem solve, not stick to a rigid plan that isn’t working. Be willing to adjust and change your methodology. “Do the best you can,” and accept responsibility for the outcome. The outcome may not be perfect, but all you can control is your effort.
We humans are great at comparing our situation to that of others. We often believe that if we are doing as well, or better, than someone else, then our lives are okay. There’s no shortage in the world of people doing bizarre, stupid, and even criminal activities that the Internet and news sources make available to us at the twitch of a finger. We wonder why or how someone could do that and then go away thinking that we are doing the best we can. Ironically, in many ways, those weirdos that are out there are doing the best that they can too. (See http://mindbodycoach.org/people/ )
Next time your waist deep in life’s alligators, consider Roosevelt’s advice, and next time you find yourself making judgments about others, remember that they are probably doing the best they can as well.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena..” – Theodore Roosevelt
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