Mind Matters — Our “Lot in Life” Reframed

Recently, I have been viewing Downton Abbey, a Masterpiece Theatre saga on PBS. The setting is an English country estate in the early 1900’s. The story is the interweaving of worlds between servants and the served.

In one dialogue between a maid and her mistress, the disparate “family mythologies” of each woman become clear. The Lady of the manor born noted that “you can do anything you want!” in an attempt to encourage her maid to move on in life and go for the secretarial job she prized. The servant’s response was “M’lady, that’s your world; that’s not true in mine.”

The servant accepted her constricted world as her fate, her “lot in life” as my mother would put it. I always balked at that line—“lot in life”—it is both true and false simultaneously.

Yes, there are certain parameters we cannot change—what family we are born into, what country, what state, what city/town we were born in; what genetics are ours. Perhaps we are discriminated against because of our race, gender, or sexual orientation.

However, there are changes we can make in our “family mythology.” These are the scripts we learn at so early an age we believe that they are inscribed in stone. They aren’t. One of my own personal family mythologies that is a work in progress for me is the maternal dictum, “my lot in life.” While it is true there are some things about our lives we cannot change, there is a “lot in life” we can.

One of the ways we can change our “lot in life” is to examine what our firmly held beliefs are. What do we think are “absolutes,” “givens,” about ourselves and others that might in fact be old scripts learned from our families of origin (and society too). Old adages such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not smart enough” or “I’m not allowed to have my own feelings” are examples of old messages that need a big re-write.

Maybe we were teased or bullied and internalized those messages making them our own. When we begin to examine the origin of these thoughts we can begin to let go of them.

The unwritten rules from one family of origin (and society) aren’t stuck on the refrigerator as reminders, they are stuck in our brains almost as automatic as reflexes. The “commandments” may be about feelings (an example: “You don’t feel that way!”); space (an example: “Don’t expect privacy.”);time; money; secrets; neighbors; sexuality; play; touching; the body; religion; food; death/loss; intelligence—and numerous other themes.

We may even discover that we lived in a family of origin where our mother held one belief system and our father, the opposite. And if we had to deal with separation and divorce of parents and subsequent blended families, we have even more contradictory rules swimming in our heads.

What we need to do is reflect on what messages and themes we want to change. Which rules might we find helpful in life, which ones need to be challenged?

Our “lot in life” is what we choose to do with our “lot in life.” Societal mythologies often overlap with family belief systems, but even the Downton Abbey maid eventually fulfilled her dream of becoming a secretary. Who knows what her grandchildren accomplished when “my lot in life” was no longer a limiting admonishment but an invitation to follow their own large journey.