What if I told you that there is one phrase that could potentially shift your perspective so much as to transform your life? You’d probably draw up images of So Hum chants and yoga poses with affirmations tattooed up your forearm. But that’s not what I’m talking about, so stop that.
I’m talking about the So What variable. Used in business all the time and often written in red ink on research papers by professors, So What has an incredible power — often forsaken for the easier Google search on “how to be happier” and “what does my rash mean.”
As humans, we tend to look at life in a very dualistic fashion. Richard Rohr, OFM, speaks and writes about dualism all the time. In his article “The Dualistic Mind,” he writes, “The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum.”
Maybe you’ve recognized some black and white thinking of your own. It’s not that this type of thinking is bad; it’s just limiting.
Take, for example, your new dog. We’ll call her Fluffy. On a typical day where we tend to worry about everything, this is how we think about Fluffy being home alone all day:
Put Fluffy in Cage + Fluffy pees in cage = Great. My day is ruined. Excuse me while I go clean up dog piss.
It’s easy to see (and to empathize) with how a small mishap can ruin your whole day. Black or white thinking: Fluffy pees, I’m upset. C’mon Fluffy, hold your freakin’ bladder!
Yet, in the pit of your stomach, you know it’s not Fluffy’s fault. So what we have to do is change that two step equation and apply the So What variable. We think about something that worries us (Fluffy in the cage). Then, we apply an unpleasant event to it (pee). And we assume and act like the outcome ruins the rest of our day. Enter So What variable…
Put Fluffy in Cage + Fluffy pees in cage ( x So What??) = ….Oh. I guess I’ll clean that up. And maybe Fluffy shouldn’t drink a gallon of water in the morning. Life goes on.
This is how the So What variable can transform your life. It puts your catastrophic thinking into perspective. It challenges you to assign new meaning to the situation instead of defaulting to dualistic thinking. Fluffy gets a little messy. You clean it up. So what? Life moves on. Maybe Fluffy needs a different routine.
What about something harder? Something dripping with trauma?
Dad is a drinker. It’s emotionally exhausting. His verbal abuse is breaking you down. Life is hopeless…. But is it? He’s abusive and it hurts; yet, that pain can help you leave, set better boundaries, seek therapy. In the end, Dad’s drinking can affect you as much or as little as you let it. And if Dad’s a drinker and you get help, so what if he keeps drinking? It doesn’t make the sadness go away, and it doesn’t mean you have to stop grieving. However, So What helps you realize that this is your Dad’s life. It’s his coping mechanism, not yours. You are free to live your life the way you want; just as your Dad is.
As you can see with Dad and Fluffy, the So What variable helps re-establish boundaries. It reminds you that Dad has his own life to live. It can renew your faith that Fluffy is going through a time of transition into your home and that with proper training, her peeing will be a temporary issue. But at the end of the day, you are you. You aren’t your Dad or Fluffy. You’re not your deadbeat brother or questionable-life-choices-sister.
So What gives us perspective and better boundary lines. But it does another cool thing — the thing businesses and red-pen professors have already figured out: It challenges us to give life meaning.
Mark Manson, who I quote all the time, writes that “Meaning is not something that exists outside of ourselves. It is not cosmic universe truth waiting to be discovered. It is not some grand ‘eureka’ moment that will change our lives forever. Meaning requires action. Meaning is something that we must continually find and nurture. Consistently.”
Let’s go through some of the big life changes people experience: trying to adopt a pet, have a baby, get married, get promoted, try a peanut-butter-nutella-sandwich, the list goes on. You may imagine that after said event or sandwich eating that you will feel very different. This isn’t true (typically). Unless you’ve worked very hard to give that event meaning or worked on yourself to be different, for the most part, you won’t feel that different right after the event has happened.
In Sarah Swafford’s book Emotional Virtue, she discusses that who you want to be has to start now because there is no altar switch. You don’t suddenly become an amazing husband or wife just because you said “I Do.” If you were a cheater before you got married, you will be afterwards unless you work on you.
So What if you get married?
So What if you have a kid?
So what if you’ve got a zit the size of Pluto?
So What if you’ve got chronic stomach pain?
These are all important to varying degrees, but how important are they? Are you doing to allow the discomforts of life to change you and challenge you so that you grow? Are you going to search for new meaning within yourself instead of waiting for the external world to be perfect so the *new you* can emerge from your cocoon?
Next time you get caught in a mind trap where everything seems horrible, try to pause. Ask yourself So What? And then lift your chin up, clean up the urine, and see that life goes on.
-Catie Hall, Identity Graduate