Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m., this is the sign that greeted me as I stood at the elevators in my apartment building. All the elevators were out of service. I was headed downtown to participate in the annual Heart & Stroke Foundation Ride for Heart, and I had already loaded my bicycle in my car the night before. In all honesty, with a 25 kilometre bike ride in the rain ahead of me in just over an hour, and having woken up at 4:15 a.m., the last thing I wanted was to walk down six flights of stairs to start my day. Human instinct is to complain about what we don’t want, about the unexpected, about results that don’t match our expectations. My first instinct on seeing this sign was very human indeed.

I try to find lessons in moments like that, however. Why? Instinct is not always constructive or positive, and wherever possible, I like to find the positive. There’s a lot of value in the adage “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. On Sunday morning, I woke up to lemons. My lemonade? I saw the six flights of stairs as a forced warm-up before getting on my bicycle, to loosen up my muscles. I saw the six flights of stairs as some extra exercise, to help me lose those next 10 pounds. I saw the six flights of stairs as an obstacle only on instinct, and I felt good that I was able to fight my instinct and realize that there was actually no obstacle at all.

The lesson for me was to understand that many of our obstacles exist only in our minds. With apologies to Freud, sometimes a flight of stairs is just a flight of stairs. All too often, in litigation as lawyers and litigants, and at mediation, even as the mediator, there appears an obstacle standing between us and a desired result. The instinct is to ask “why?” and to bemoan the obstacle. True, sometimes the obstacles are real – we shouldn’t be naive in that respect. But sometimes we can take that obstacle, and by fighting instinct, we can instead ask the question “why not?”, and use the perceived obstacle as a way of looking at a problem from a different perspective. Sometimes the obstacle motivates us to use our creativity and help find the positive in a situation.

And sometimes, when we find ourselves faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, we should remember that when we find ourselves at our lowest points, a flight of stairs usually leads us upwards.

Going down? Or up?

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