Monday, June 23, 2008


I'm not sure exactly how we got into this habit, but my younger daughter and I have begun using this phrase -- Oh-well -- when a situation is irritating but not necessarily fixable in any obvious way.

I suppose it's the equivalent of any number of French phrases (please pardon my spelling): Comme ci, Comme ca; que sera, sera; c'est la vie... It means we're giving up, for now: that's life, this is how it is. "Oh-well!" -- accompanied always with a rather philosophical Gallic shrug -- Basically, what can I do about it?

So it was amusing to find myself parked behind this license plate in the ferry line not too long ago. And it seemed not unreasonable to consider the phrase and what lies behind it. Is this acceptance? Or is it resignation? Is it a reasonable response, or a lazy one?

What if we look at it in the context of the serenity prayer? You know: 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? In some situations, "Oh-well" could be considered a serene, centered response to the unchangeable in life.

But what about those other situations, the changeable ones? Couldn't "Oh-well" be roughly equivalent to that annoying "whatever" this same daughter used to spout whenever she was corrected or challenged in her younger years; a kind of yeah-and-whaddaya-expect-ME-to-do-about-it" response that implies complete disconnection.

You know: messy room? Oh-well. Global warming? Oh-well. It's the heart song of the me generation -- your problem is not my problem -- and the exact opposite of what Dan Siegel calls "Transpirational Integration," where becoming centered in our own lives makes us more attuned to the challenges facing other lives, communities, and the planet, and we begin to respond on behalf of others.

My guess is that the "wisdom to know the difference" in this case is pretty situational: oh-well could mean any number of things, depending on what's going on and who's talking. If I call QWEST today to express concern about our flaky modem, and the customer service personnel says, "Oh-well," I will probably be pretty annoyed: having paid my money, I have a right to expect better service than that.

But if my daughter calls today to say she has decided NOT to go back to Bennington in the fall, my husband and I will look at each other, shrug, and say "Oh-well!" We have an old Mark Twain hotel quote we refer to in situations like these: "the walls were so thin you could hear the women next door changing their minds." We just smile and say the walls are getting pretty thin, and don't attach to her statement, as she's changed her mind several times already on this issue.

She knows the deadline for the final decision, and she knows what her options are: if she takes a term off from school, she needs to be either working, studying, or volunteering somewhere else. It's not our job to control her, but to trust that by the time she needs to decide she will have done so -- it's her decision (within the parameters we set), not ours. So our job is to wait, like Lao-Tzu, on the bank of the river, for whatever right action may be.

And if her decision isn't exactly what we would have hoped?


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