When it’s too much, do something else.

I used to babysit for my friend S’s six-month-old child. The baby was a generally pleasant little guy, but when tired or if startled, he could get into cycles of sadness. Like so many of us, he immediately focused on the negative and was inconsolable sometimes. What I realized, especially with a small one who couldn’t use words to work his way out of his problems, was that sometimes distractions are life-giving. If I could get a sad baby to engage with a new toy, to listen to me sing, or to touch the textured wood on the bench outside, I had a chance of making him happier. Focusing on something else was enough to bring solace.

Lately, I’ve been spending time with other people who, as adults, having this problem: and I’ll confess, it’s sometimes me too. Focusing on one negative thing leads to another, and then to another. In that spiral, my brain stubbornly tells itself, “you must solve these problems in order to feel better. You must be miserable till then.” The tough part, of course, is that suffering, and loss, and emotional damage aren’t things that are solved: they are managed. What I’m learning is that, sometimes, the right thing to when negativity has you trapped is to do something else.

When sad, bake bread.

When heartbroken, tend your garden.

When furious, do some dishes. They make a lot of noise, so that’s nice.

It’s not that the thing or the emotion is solved by the action. It’s that distracting yourself from the negativity introduces another spiral, an upward one. It gives you one rung of a positivity ladder that can take you up. Obviously, the problems are still there; they will erupt from time to time and demand your attention. But living with all your attention on that isn’t as good as doing something else, something else good or something else that needs to be done. It’s a life-giving kind of distraction.