Choosing the right tool for the work

As a kid, I watched my father do amazing things. He can fix almost anything. The man is a visionary who can build new things from what he sees in his mind. He once turned an old cottage into our first family home by building a new wing after digging the basement and building the foundation all by hand. He made a beautiful fireplace out of cobble stones that he picked up along the shores of Lake Superior. Years later we moved to a new home with a dirt floor basement, which he converted into a full apartment ? doing all the carpentry, the plumbing, the electrical, and the finishing himself.

Regardless of what stops working or gets broken, Dad fixes the situation with a method that works every time. He starts by accepting the situation. Next, he finds the courage to accept the challenge. Then, he explores possibilities to make good choices. Finally, he finds the right tools to use in his toolbox and gets busy with the work, which he keeps doing until the work is done.

All these valuable steps are important to prepare a project. When a situation challenges us to build something new in life or to fix something that is not working as well as we like, we can use the same approach as Dad. We can start with a few simple tools as we prepare for the work we need to do.

One of the best tools we can use is acceptance. The serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr is well-known to many folks in recovery. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Countless people have felt a healing effect by accepting things they cannot change. When we can, though, we should try to change things that need changing.

Tending to emotional setbacks for too long can turn into a lifestyle. If that happens, we stop moving forward. When life is not working out well, or when we feel like something is broken, it could be time to try something new. Exploration helps us find our potential as well as discover better things in life. Most of us are trained at an early age to not wander too far and to stay out of trouble. We might remember a time or two when we ignored a parent or teacher and got hurt. While it may be reasonable to not step carelessly into the unknown, exploring can be healthy. People are natural-born explorers. Exploring is the way we learn, and learning boosts our confidence and well-being. Our wounds can make ruts we get stuck in. The only way out of a rut is to step out of it and start walking another way.

Most people have felt fear on some level. Fear alerts us to the possibility of physical or emotional harm and may be linked to memories of harm or the potential of harm. Fear pulls us back from the edge in an effort to keep us from falling off. Fear is good. However, sometimes our fear blocks the view of our own potential. Courage is a tool that leverages our heart to manage our fear so we can act on our convictions. Courage is not some mysterious quality so much as it is a deliberate choice available to each of us.

Sometimes people hurt us. A useful tool when that happens is forgiveness. Mark Twain wrote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Forgiving someone can promote healing of an emotional wound they caused. New research at the Erasmus University Rotterdam School of Management tested the physical effect of forgiving someone. They discovered people got a boost in physical strength compared to others when performing a physically demanding task after simply thinking about a time when they forgave someone. Forgiveness lightens us emotionally, but it can also help get some of that wasted energy back. The act of forgiving lets us move on, but be careful with this tool. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. Rather than staying mad at someone for not repaying a debt, forgive the person and stop loaning them money.

Another tool is the apology. Everybody makes mistakes, and our mistakes sometimes hurt others. When that happens, we owe it to those we offended (as well as to ourselves) to make a sincere apology. This tool works well on relationships if it is used properly. Key to apologizing is to be sincere. Insincere apologies or apologizing for harm one did not cause can damage self-confidence and well-being. Saying “I am sorry” in these situations can lower stress levels in both parties, and it helps heal relationships.

One of the most valuable tools we own is love. Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic in Kansas once said “Love cures people – both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.” The cure for feeling unloved is to love. Like most everything else, love gets better with practice, but love is hard to do effectively without also properly using it on ourselves. If we are not respectful, show kindness and grant tolerance, patience and consideration to ourselves, we may not be doing it right when we try loving others.

These are just a few of the tools that can help us build our lives and make repairs when things stop working. What is in your mental health toolbox?

Editor’s Note: Brian is a licensed professional counselor and is the training and prevention specialist at Copper Country Mental Health Institute in Houghton.


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