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What’s Not Wrong

My mother is 88 years old. All of her life she was active, energetic, fast-moving, enthusiastic, and in charge. When we were kids, she walked so fast that my sister and I had to run to keep up with her. My dad was in the Navy and was gone for months at a time. She took care of everything and managed multiple moves across the country. She led our Girl Scout troop and when she broke her ankle right before a winter camping trip, she didn’t back out. She wrapped her cast in plastic bags and we dragged her through the snow on a sled.

When we were stationed in Oslo, Norway she took six months of language school to learn Norwegian and then ran an English language advertising magazine for Norwegian businesses. Back in the US, she got involved in radio advertising sales and ran a radio station in Richmond for eleven years. When she finally moved into a retirement community, she took charge of coordinating volunteer activities, managed programming for the Women’s Club, and took care of the rose garden.

Getting older was no problem for her for many years, but in the normal progression of aging, she has lost much of her energy, her vision is poor, she doesn’t hear as well, she doesn’t always feel well, she now uses a walker and is a slow-mover. Her progressively diminished capacity and increasing limitations have made her impatient, angry, and sometimes depressed. The idea that this is normal does not make her feel any better about it.

One of the improv exercises I have found to be the most helpful and profoundly mind-shifting is called “What’s NOT Wrong with Your Life.” It’s a simple exercise of pairing off, with one person asking the other, “what’s not wrong with your life” again and again for one minute. The responding partner responds with anything – “I’m alive,” “I’m not in jail,” or “I have a job,” etc. Then the partners switch roles for another minute. People tend to start with very basic statements, but I have said and heard some unexpectedly profound revelations. The point – and the effect – of the exercise is to shift one’s perspective from negative to positive. And it works!

Which leads us back to my mother. While sitting with her in a doctor’s office waiting for an appointment, she became increasingly impatient and agitated and downright grumpy. I said, “Let’s play ‘what’s not wrong with your life.’” She said, in her crankiest voice, “NO, I DON’T want to.” I said, “OK, I’ll play for you.” “What’s not wrong with your life, Mom? I’m sitting here with my daughter. What’s not wrong with your life? My daughters love to spend time with me. What’s not wrong with your life? My granddaughter is five years sober. What’s not wrong with your life? I can count on my family to support and entertain me.” Eventually, she began answering the questions herself. By the time the nurse called her in for her appointment, she looked at me and said, “Well, that really does work!” And that was the highlight of my day.

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