When I was a kid I was accused of taking advantage of the situation on a frequent basis, usually by my dad, who was at times desperate to polish his only child’s impulse control flaws right out of what he saw as her diamond soul. At the time, however, I was unaware of his parental longings, understanding only that I was constantly in trouble for behaviors that felt fluid and natural. We’d come home from a camping trip, and as my parents were busy unloading gear, I’d furtively grab a marker and write the cheer “Woooo!” on the kitchen counter, heart pounding from my daring indiscretion. It was OK, because the washable ink beaded right up upon contact with the gold-flecked 1950s formica, and rubbed right off without a trace at the slightest touch. Scrawl, rub, scrawl, rub. I did it over and over, testing the limits, until I cut it too close and my dad walked in the back door with an armload of REI, catching me in the act. Face tightening into the disapproving scowl I sought to avoid at all costs, while directly courting it with my impulsive behavior, (what an exhausting paradox for an eight year-old psyche to bear), he took my arm, saying through angrily pursed lips, you’re taking advantage of the situation! And I was in trouble again.
I came to dread the phrase, knowing its invocation meant I was in Big Trouble, meaning my dad was winding up into one of his 50 minute lectures about responsibility and impulse control, at the end of which I would either face a set of consequences or be expected to make a contract to try to be better. Whatever it was, he drew the penalty phase out to its max, college professor that he was. You’re taking advantage of the situation the thesis statement of his diatribe against the rougher aspects of my character. Death by oration.
I didn’t know how to be different, to be better, to eliminate the behaviors my dad feared would hinder me in life. In my estimation you had to get it while you could, while their backs were turned, when no one was looking, when it was most possible. Whatever it was. And the riskier the situation, the stiffer the potential consequences, the more compelling the act became. I would have to. Taking advantage of the situation just flowed.
Some impulses I’ve been unable to eradicate; success is defined as their careful and committed management. There are some, however, I’ve tasked myself to reexamine for potential merit–is there a way to translate them into purpose? Can they be used for good? Can the negative connotation and association be removed for positive potential use? If this is woven into the fiber of my being, can it be reworked into something helpful, rather than relegated to the margins?
I know for sure pushing away the parts of myself that cause problems doesn’t work, instead making me vulnerable to self-abuse and peripheral predators who would scent my disintegration and attempt to exploit me. Instead, the best option is to embrace them and search for ways to convert them to strengths.
Here’s how it works: I start by examining the old assumption for inherent morality, looking to determine whether it’s absolute, seeking wiggle room, an angle from which to advance the good. Taking advantage of the situation isn’t inherently evil. I think back to last summer, when three American friends took advantage of the situation on a Paris-bound train to stop an intended mass-shooter and save lives. They saw a way and went for it, impulses running wild to save the day.
Soon, a new understanding of taking advantage of the situation became available. How could it be used to effect change, to create good, to maintain order, even? What if it was on hand for me to use in a deliberate manner, no uncontrollable impulses required? Is that what they call being strategic?
I took advantage of the situation to elevate the culture of my workplace a couple of years ago, a process that continues today. I was a newcomer to a place with an extraordinary social mission, where the people fulfilling it were mired in toxic negativity. As I learned the personalities and relationship dynamics, I began to see opportunities to use my colleagues’ difficult character aspects to solve our collective problems. I took advantage of the situation and created an underground group of colleagues called “the Initiative“, who were committed to raising the vibe to a level of courtesy, to starving the negative until it died. I made sure some of our most difficult people were in the group. Their unhappiness appeared to stem from a lack of control and a need to belong, and by inviting them to join the Initiative, I gave them a sense of both. The organization’s leadership did not endorse us or know of our existence, even. We took advantage of the lack of oversight to set goals in the best interests of the “boots on the ground”, understanding we had strength in numbers to get it done. When leadership began to notice the cultural shift of the organization into something positive and effective, they climbed on board and asked me to form an official committee to advance our culture.
Had I sat back, loath to challenge the status quo, a mere observer in the toxic morass, struggling against the group, a crucial opportunity would have been missed. I saw a dearth of cultural leadership, backs turned to the problem, and took advantage of the situation. I used an old weakness of mine that never remitted, shaping and honing it into a tool for the common good. In the process, I used others’ weaknesses to elevate our collective situation, and why couldn’t this go on in perpetuity? Just imagine, for a moment what we could do on a societal level if we practiced taking advantage of the situation to effect outcomes of the highest good? It starts with the individual. What bad old behaviors could you reexamine and put to use to shift the course of your own life, and the lives of others?
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