Penlight or Spotlight?

Where I live, this is “skunk season”. Before you let your dog out at night, it’s a good plan to illuminate your backyard and check for unwanted visitors.

Why do I know that? …Yes. You guessed it. One night it was late, I was tired, and I only shined my penlight around the back patio area. But my dog went past that light to the far corner of the yard, and got himself sprayed. Pee-yew! He came zipping back into the house….Have you ever had to ‘de-skunk’ both your dog and your carpets? It was memorable.

After this adventure, I invested in a large handheld spotlight that I keep by my back door. Lesson learned.

Then yesterday, I was talking with a friend. After I shared my skunk adventure, she told me she was having a hard week, too. She wasn’t dealing with de-skunking, but with a fight she was having with her husband. They had been arguing for three days.

But I’ve known her for years, and she and her husband love each other dearly. And suddenly I realized that my penlight/spotlight story applies to relationships, too. My friend was being like me, shining her penlight only on one small area. She ‘illuminated’ just the argument, and thought she was seeing everything that was ‘important’ to see.

I recognized that because I’ve done it, too. One time, my husband, Brad, was tossing his socks in the direction of the laundry hamper. Of course, they often landed to the side or behind the hamper. I was letting myself get angry, thinking, “Why can’t he get his socks in the hamper?! Why am I the one putting his socks in the hamper?” I was shining my penlight on those socks on the floor, and that was all I was noticing about him and the things he did.

Happily, before I said anything, I happened to read a great article. The author suggested we consider the entire context of a relationship before we let ourselves get crazy about some minor detail of life. So to shine my spotlight, I made a mental list of “What I like, love and appreciate about Brad.” It was quite a list. Here are a few examples: Brad was an amazing teacher, and taught me so much about how to teach well. He was my best friend, and supported me in achieving my dreams. He loved my son, and was a great father to him. He enjoyed surprising me after a long day with a delicious dinner. I could talk to him about anything, and he could make me laugh when I was stressing. He even put the toilet seat down, every single time.

Now, was Brad perfect? Of course not. And I’m certainly not! But when I compare the penlight on his ‘socks on the floor’ to the spotlight on all the good stuff? Well, ask yourself, “Would I be willing to put the socks in the hamper to have this amazing person as my spouse?” Virtually everyone I know would respond, “Absolutely!!”

I told my friend this story, and she decided to try the same thing. Pretty quickly, she was listing the things she liked, loved and appreciated about her husband. He’s a good provider and a hard worker. He shows his love for her in big and little ways. (Use your imagination.) He has a “We are a team” attitude about money, housework and childcare. He loves their children and treats them well. He enjoys spending time with her, and calls her his “best friend”, too.

It was wonderful watching her face light up as she listed all the things her ‘spotlight’ was illuminating about him. She, too, decided that in this case her ‘issue’ was a minor detail in the big picture of their life together. Later she called to tell me that because of her new attitude, she and her husband were able to solve the problem that day. What an effect it can have if, rather than get upset about something that truly is a minor detail, we are willing to shine the spotlight. Bright lights help us remember all we value in our relationship.

As I discovered the hard way, it is not a good plan to think a penlight shows us all we need to see. Using a spotlight, in this case to illuminate the good, increases our joy and gratitude, and makes problem-solving so much more pleasant. No stinky skunks here!


  1. Andrea Williams says:

    My sister Julie helped me in this same way a few months ago. I’ve trouble with Michelle, my daughter, for a few decades over a multitude of issues. If I say, “It sure is hot!” when it’s 105 degrees, she’d reply with, “I think it’s nice.”

    What Julie did was give me “homework.” She wanted me to write down three things that I either liked or appreciated about Michelle every day for a week. I harrumphed and said I didn’t think I could find three things total. She she said try for one thing a day.

    The point of the exercise was to get me to think positively about Michelle instead of stewing over decades’ worth of hurt feelings.

    I did manage six things over the course of two weeks. So then, every day, I had to read each of those things. Boy was I surprised to find after a few weeks that I was beginning to feel better about Michelle, and also wrote down a few more things I liked and appreciated about her. Better yet, I snuck most of them into emails to let her know them.

    So, for years I had been shining my penlight on the negatives. I’m not quite at the point of shining a spotlight, yet expect that to come in due time. I can’t undo 30 years of butting heads in a few months.

    • Terry Turner says:

      What a brilliant explanation and application of the concept of noticing what we focus on. Thank you for sharing this, Andrea! It’s a great idea.

    • Terry Turner says:

      That is Very insightful, Kathleen, and very timely, too. Thank you for sharing this. You have a gift for illuminating! 🙂

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