The phone rang at 9:52 this morning. Unknown number. I didn’t pick up.
At 9:53, a voice message appeared. I listened.
It was “Fabiola from the District Court victim advocacy office,” informing me that the case against the woman who stole my wallet and fraudulently used my debit card last summer was being heard today. It was a short message, which ended by asking me to return the call if there was anything I wanted to add to the case before it went before the judge.
At 9:55, I called back. No answer. I left a message explaining that the local police detective in charge of the case had assured me I’d receive an invitation to appear in court when the woman was tried, but that I’d received no such letter or call. I requested that the case be continued until such an invitation were issued, to allow me to be there, and asked that Fabiola call me back.
I continued to call back every 5 or 10 minutes. Answering machine. Answering machine. I left a couple of other messages with details pertinent to the case:
- I’d learned that this woman had 19 prior counts of theft and fraud before mine, and yet had never received jail time.
- I’d lost not only days of my life trying to rectify the stolen funds with my bank and piece back together the contents of the stolen wallet, but actual money by way of lost work hours and having to order a replacement license.
- The woman had committed these thefts with a child of under four years of age in tow, using the boy as part of the con, involving the child in the crimes and modeling to this child that theft was an acceptable way of life.
Do you think me heartless? Did you imagine that I’d have more compassion, given my lifelong role as a mentor to youth, many of them having made poor choices along the way?
Please know that my first response was compassion. Had I learned that the woman had used my bank card to buy formula, diapers of food staples, I would have shown up to court and advocated for leniency, even offering her my own help where possible.
But it quickly became clear the day of the incident that she was not stealing out of indigence or need. No, she was rushing down my own street (a mark of a seasoned criminal, knowing that purchases near the residence of the victim are less likely to be flagged immediately as fraud), buying cartons of cigarettes here, magazines there, donut gift cards at the next place.
At close to 11:00, Fabiola called back. The case had gone to trial at 10:00 she told me. She was upstairs at the hearing when I’d called back.
I could feel my blood pressure going up.
“Fabiola,” I said, “so what you’re telling me is that you called me eight minutes before the hearing and immediately hung up the phone and went upstairs … meaning you had no intention of hearing my feedback before the case was tried.”
Awkward silence on the phone.
Then the excuses began.
“Well, we sent a letter to you in February.”
“I didn’t receive any letter. What address do you have?”
“8 Meadow Lane …”
“No, I haven’t lived there in over six years. And it’s not the address I listed on the police report.”
“Oh, well, I’m sorry you didn’t receive the letter, but we did send it.”
“Yes, you sent it to the wrong address … which wasn’t the one I provided on my victim statement. Are you telling me that the police didn’t give you my victim statement? It’s not in your case file? Because if that’s the case, I need to hang up with you and go right down to the police department to file a complaint against the detective in charge. Gee, and he seemed so competent …”
“Well,” Fabiola hemmed and hawed, “I didn’t say we didn’t get the report. I just know that we sent a letter to 8 Meadow Lane and didn’t hear from you.”
“And that is because … I don’t live there. Are you telling me you didn’t receive it back from the post office then? Because after I get done at the police station, it sounds like you’re telling me that I need to stop in at the post office and ask why they also screwed up. But what I’m sure of is that you had my phone number, because you called me this morning … eight minutes before the trial.”
More awkward silence.
“I was only just able to find your phone number this morning, sir. But good news. The defendant plead guilty and received probation.”
I drew in a long, slow breath and let it out.
“Fabiola … so, you didn’t use the address on the police report … which also had my phone number printed clearly on it … and you just happened to find my number minutes before trial … after which you left me exactly zero time to even call you back to voice my concerns and requests for reimbursement? And after nineteen priors and involving a young child in her con, the woman received … probation. What can I do at this point to have a say in the matter?”
“Well, sir, I’m sorry you didn’t respond to the letter, but …”
I cut her off. “Fabiola, I’m not going to accept that. I didn’t respond to a letter which may or may not have been sent to an address I haven’t lived at in six years and that did not match the address written on my police report or currently listed for me with the DMV.”
“Yes, well … no, there really isn’t anything that can be done now, because we didn’t hear back from you …”
I cut in again. “… because you didn’t send the letter to the correct address, and then called at a time you knew would not allow me to respond.”
“Again, sir, the case has been heard.”
“Can it be re-opened, so that I, the victim, can be heard?”
“No, it can’t. The judge doesn’t like to keep cases like this sitting around. He wants to just move them through. So once judgment is passed, there’s nothing you can do. But if she breaks her probation, she’ll be in a lot of trouble and maybe get jail time.”
“She hasn’t been ‘in a lot of trouble’ after twenty priors,” I said. “And were separate charges filed for involving a young child in the crimes? This is not in debate. She was caught on camera at three places with the child.”
“I don’t really know, sir. That’s not our field. That would be family court. Maybe one of the employees at one of the merchant locations filed a 51A.”
I was over it. As politely as I could muster, I ended the call with Fabiola.
In my first post of 2018, I told you that my theme for the year would be further exploration of the advice contained in my book The Best Advice So Far, whether by way of different stories, new perspectives or additional thoughts. Here are a few ideas I was planning to revisit in this post:
Misery is a choice.
Worry serves no purpose but to ruin the present.
The sooner you accept that life is not fair, the happier you will be.
And I had originally intended to use a conversation I’d had with a friend a few weeks back as the central anecdote for this post. Little did I know that before it was all over, I’d wind up being my own object lesson for this particular “deep dive.”
I write quite a bit about topics like how to navigate regret, banish worry, and let go of anger before it turns into bitterness. But there’s some related ground that doesn’t get much air time.
I call it dwelling.
Dwelling is a bit different from regret, worry or anger. And yet it can involve elements of all of these. It’s a sort of nebulous in-betweener. It’s good at hiding—which is why it tends to go unnoticed so long.
When dwelling sets in, we tend to find ourselves saying things like:
“I can’t focus. I’m distracted.”
“I just feel exhausted all the time.”
“I feel depressed, but I don’t know why.”
But these sentiments speak only about effects, not the underlying cause—the roots that lie hidden below the surface, leeching the vitality from the soil of the soul.
I told you that it was originally my intent to use a recent conversation with a friend (we’ll call him “Ray”) as the central anecdote for this post. Ray and I were talking on the phone and he expressed that he’d been feeling tired and empty for a while. “But,” he added, “there’s really no reason for it that I can see. Work is fine. The family’s good. It just doesn’t make sense.”
For the next few minutes, we brainstormed together, considering everything from certain vitamin deficiencies to seasonal affect disorder. But I’ve seen the insidious strangle hold of dwelling enough times by now to at least pose the question: “Ray, is there any one thought you find your mind returning to frequently—one that makes you feel upset, but that you keep pushing away or minimizing because you don’t know what to do with it?”
No sooner had I asked than Ray offered, “Well, yeah … sort of.” He told me exactly what it was.
And sure enough … it was a case of dwelling.
Like regret, my friend wondered whether things might have turned out differently if he’d somehow known or said or done something he hadn’t seen then.
Like worry, he went round in circles about whether he might have some sort of responsibility remaining, to do something that might prevent a similar situation from happening to others in the future.
Like anger, he felt his life had been made more difficult by the incompetence and mistreatment of others; but those others were not people he knew personally, and they were only small cogs in the machinery of a much larger broken system.
And so he tucked the situation away until a perennial “next time,” when maybe it would play out differently, or he’d see whatever he’d been missing that would vindicate himself while finally making sure the wrong-doers got their comeuppance.
Only thing is, for all the mental expenditure, not a thing had changed in the year between.
I realize I’ve explained a bit about what dwelling isn’t, or what it’s like, or what it does to us; but I haven’t quite spelled out what it is.
As best I can describe it, dwelling is replaying the details of a difficult situation—often one we identify as “unfair”—with the intention of somehow making it fair eventually (even if we don’t immediately recognize that that’s what we’re doing).
We have “that conversation” again and again, wishing we’d said something smarter. Or that someone in authority had stood up for us. Or that we hadn’t felt so helpless.
Somewhere in the back of our consciousness, we imagine that our feelings of being wronged will matter “this time” when we rerun the scene, or even that revisiting it again and again will have some kind of cumulative effect.
Dwelling often has a generic, distanced or vague object:
people / the world
… which is why it tends to slip under the radar for so long: because anger feels like it should have a clear object for us to get mad at. In fact, we may have thought we worked through anger toward a specific person, while continuing to dwell on the situation (e.g., the time we lost, why we didn’t see it sooner, how this could have happened to me, etc.).
At other times, dwelling centers on an encounter where a stranger or person we’ll never see again mistreated us.
And so we don’t know what to do with it. No matter how many times we rewrite the script—to rework the characters, plot or lines—it always returns to the same program that aired the first time around.
The good news is that the solution for moving on from dwelling is fairly simple, at least as I’ve come to practice it. And that solution is the same one I use for just about any of the look-alikes such as regret, worry or anger (adapted here from Chapter 33 of The Best Advice So Far):
- I ask myself, “Is there anything I can do about this right now?”
If there is, I do it right away, however small a thing it may be. Yet what I’ve realized with dwelling—which differs from its cousins regret, worry and anger—is that often, all you can do is identify and accept that you are dwelling and that it isn’t getting you anywhere.
- If I determine that there is nothing I can do about the issue right now (beyond, perhaps, that acceptance that I’ve been dwelling), I ask myself, “Is there anything I can do about this at a later time?”
Often, this turns up a different result from asking whether there is anything I can do immediately. One of the most common times dwelling rears up is in the middle of the night.
So let’s say I find myself dwelling again on court thing at 3:00 in the morning. And I decide that, while I could get out of bed and write a letter, it’s probably not wise, seeing that I’ve got to get up in a few hours. If I find there is something such as this that I can do at a later time, I write down what I can do and when.
You may think this seems like a silly step. But I’ve found that physically writing down that next step does something in the way of symbolically taking the situation out of my head and making it external. To have the thing I’ve been dwelling on—and its next possible action point—written safely down and folded up on the bedside table assures my subconscious mind that I won’t forget.
And so if that dwelling tries to persist, I just focus my thoughts: “It’s OK. I wrote it down. I will do something about it at that time.” Strangely enough, this allows me to sleep in those wee-hours dwell-spells (or to keep from being distracted during any interim, such as work, where I can’t address an action point immediately).
- If, however, I’ve answered that there is nothing I can do at the moment and nothing I can do at any time in the future about what I’ve been dwelling on—and this is the most important step—I make a deliberate and active choice to let it go.
I reiterate to myself that I have done all I can do, and that continuing to give this thing any more brain space and energy is only wrecking perfectly good moments in the present. If I find the scene trying to play itself out again in my head down the road, I shut the thoughts down immediately, reminding myself that I’ve put the issue to the test and determined that it is 100% out of my control.
So I don’t try to control it.
I should note a couple more important things about dwelling.
First, dwelling can happen throughout the course of a day. Or it can last for weeks, months—even years. The sooner we can identify it for what it is and start shutting it down, the better. Without taking measures to lift the needle from the record, it will play indefinitely, scratching away at our happiness.
In the case of the woman who’d stolen my wallet, and the subsequent failures of the court system, I found myself feeling the weight of the unfairness. I replayed the details as I drove. I felt the tightness in my jaw as I worked with the kids I mentor, distracting me from giving them my full attention.
A few hours in, I realized I was at the beginning stages of dwelling. And as soon as I recognized it, I put it to my three-step test:
Could I do anything to change the situation right now?
I decided I could not.
Could I do anything about it later?
I considered that I could write a letter to the judge in the case, explaining my experience and the shortcomings of the victim advocacy office; but I decided this would not really change the system or the outcome of the case. And while I could contact the probation officer and follow up each and every month, waiting for the wallet thief to miss a check-in so that I could drag her back into court, I finally determined that this would also not change the woman or the broken system. All it would do is allow the woman’s actions to continue to take up more of my free time with negativity.
Having decided that there was nothing I could do now, and nothing of value I could do later—I just didn’t give it any more airplay.
And every time vapors of it tried to coalesce in the hours and days that followed—to gain momentum through words, images or emotions—I scattered them decisively, stating matter-of-factly, “No, I’ve already put this one into the ‘can-not-control’ chute. Done.”
I’m here to tell you that being consistent and disciplined with this strategy really works.
That said, I need to mention that there are certain scenarios where you may not want to go it alone in getting past dwelling:
- You realize that you’ve been dwelling on the same thing for years—even a lifetime.
- You honestly aren’t sure about whether you can do anything about the situations now or later.
- There are many different circumstances that come back to haunt you, rather than one or two.
- You suspect that incidents from your past have contributed to persistent and detrimental mindsets or patterns of behavior in the present.
If any of these special cases sounds like you, the process I’ve suggested in this post still applies. However, you may want to invite help from a counselor in working through the steps and getting to a place where lingering hurt no longer has a hold on you.
Remember, dwelling (i.e., replaying situations over and over without any change) is 100% wasted energy. It does not even out the cosmic scales in our favor. And not only is it wasted time and energy, it steals from our one source of time and energy, leaving us depleted in other areas that do matter and that we could do something about.
Perhaps worst of all, dwelling gives negative experiences a prolonged lifespan, well after the events themselves are over and done with.
The wonderful reality is that the past has no more power over us than what we choose to give it.