November 29, 2023

A Lesson on Defaulting to the Positive instead of the Negative.


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A couple of months back, the starter died on my truck while I was parked in San Juan Del Sur, a touristy fishing village about 90 minutes from home and from my mechanic.

The day was a hot one, and while it wasn’t the worst of places to break down, the delay wasn’t in my plans.

With my hood popped up in the middle of a seaside street bustling with reckless motorbikes and aloof, sight-seeing pedestrians, I felt flustered.

Most of us will recognize that cross-section of emotion when vehicles fail us and plans falter and we don’t immediately know what to do about it. But I have lived enough years in Nicaragua to know that when trucks break down, they will no doubt get fixed soon enough. Usually by means far more adventurous and less confident than a call to AAA.

After a few unproductive moments of quiet frustration and ultimately resigning to an unknown resolution, I noticed a friendly wave from a man across the street. He was a local Nicaraguan shop owner and he ambled over the road to help, gripping a hammer in his hand. In my signature Spanglish I use for all things medical and mechanical, I explained my problem: my car won’t start. It’s not the battery. It’s not the fuses. The starter won’t start the engine.

The Nicaraguan shop owner proceeded to poke around under the hood. He leaned into the engine, then tapped on my starter with the blunt end of his hammer. Tappy tap tap, and then signaled for me to turn the key.

Bam! My Landcruiser fired right up, and we cruised on out of town.

While I was grateful for the shop owner’s hack, that incident meant many things to me. Not just that I could now drive on home and carry on with my plans, and had no need for a mechanic or a tow truck or the threat of major expenses. It also meant that I learned one more thing about truck maintenance. Driving my 2002 diesel 4 x 4, I felt that much more competent on the road.

Not many of us enjoy when things go wrong, when everything breaks, or when that murky helpless feeling that smudges any clarity of thought comes. But…there is always a reason bad things happen to us (for us), and something we can learn.

There is a take away, that maybe we can’t immediately see.

Skipping ahead a few weeks after the starter-not-starting incident, I found myself on top of a grassy hill, the tranquil scene of a quiet private event in the jungly hills just outside San Juan del Sur.

The specific event I was partaking in is a story for another time, but the event had ended, and the hired chef who had kept me fed and happy over a long weekend was in a similar dilemma as I had been. Her truck was packed and ready to depart, but the engine in her truck, also a Landcruiser, wouldn’t start.

She propped her hood up with a brushless broom stick, and we peered over the dirty tangle of wires and hoses. The event host approached us to see what the problem was and to offer help, but she wasn’t sure what could be done to start the truck either.

Us three chicks (I think we were still in yoga pants) stared at the greasy, confusing insides of the engine, the chef texting photos of car parts to her out-of-town husband, exotic jungle birds chirping peacefully in the distance.

“Hang on…” I said, thinking and remembering, “…do you have a hammer?”

The event host turned and soon returned with a hammer from her garage and handed it to me.

Then cautiously tapping the part inside the engine that resembled a starter, tappy tap tap, I asked the chef to turn the key again and…Bam! It fired right up.

We three were pretty proud of ourselves, having never solved such an issue without man or mechanic before. Hooting and hollering followed as we waved the chef off, rumbling her truck down the grassy hill, onto a dirt road, and away.

I think the take-away here is pretty clear. It sucks when bad things happen, or when something goes wrong. We tend to then project in our mind a series of terrible frustrations that could follow our current misfortune (long delays, high costs, cancelled plans…some call this “awfulize-ing”).

But the reality that played out was positive and the opposite of the negative scene that I had first played out in my mind.

When my own truck broke down, I received immediate, friendly, and free help. Help that also taught me how to fix my Landcruiser the next time the starter stopped.

And more, I was able to extend this helpful new knowledge to another soon after. Rather than creating a domino-effect of catastrophes, like I had at first worried would happen, my own truck breaking down created a ripple effect of good.

I wish I could go back to that day on that hot, seaside street in San Juan the first time my truck wouldn’t start, and rather than let a great sea of worries and frustration slop onto my mood, I would have defaulted to the positive instead.

My thoughts could have been: Someone will help. I can practice may Spanglish. This is an adventure. I get to learn something new about my truck. It will all be okay, and I’ll pay this forward one day soon.

That kind of thinking. Default to the positive. Try to be more self-aware of how my emotional reactions feed my thoughts, which then informs my behavior.

That’s what I’m aiming to do more of and see where that takes me. And who else I can help when I do.


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