I saw a friend of mine, another mom, at my son’s baseball game today. I hadn’t talked with her for a while, and we were catching up on how our lives have been since the last time we saw each other. I was pleasantly surprised and flattered that she told me she has put into practice something that she had learned from me – compartmentalizing.

The official definition of compartmentalizing is “dividing into sections or categories” but the way I was trained by the navy is to focus on the thing that needs your attention most and de-prioritize the other stuff or leave it out of your mind. It was extremely helpful for flying, and the concept was constantly drilled in our heads by the oft-used phrase, “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate”; i.e. keep the plane flying, figure out where you are, and then talk with air traffic controllers. For example, if the engine quits in flight, fly the plane (keep your airspeed up enough so you don’t stall and make matters worse) and deal with the emergency. Then, figure out where you are and look for a good place to land, and finally–and only after taking care of “aviate” and “navigate”–transmit your intentions on the radio to air traffic control (ATC), aka the guy sitting in the air-conditioned building, eating a Twinkie while you’re fighting snakes in the cockpit. It seems pretty straight-forward, but when you’re dealing with an emergency in the cockpit and you start drifting toward restricted airspace and ATC is squawking in your headset, asking you what’s going on, it’s important to shut out unnecessary noise and deal first with the top priority – keep the plane flying.

I don’t remember having the conversation with my friend about compartmentalizing, but I don’t doubt that in a past discussion I advocated for its usage in our hectic lives. Focusing on work while I’m at work and not worrying about issues at home helps me to be more productive. Being present at home while I’m with my kids and not thinking about work enables me to be a better mom. Compartmentalizing helps me be a better (and safer) pilot in the air; on the ground it empowers me to get my priorities straight, based on my situation.

I was caught off-guard this year to find that there is a downside to compartmentalizing that I had not been aware of – not dealing with all that stuff that you’ve left out of your mind so you could focus on the task at hand means there are issues that are unresolved and they can start to fester in your soul. Over the past year, I ended my marriage and also had to say goodbye to someone I loved, and instead of dealing with the sorrow and grief over the losses, I compartmentalized. It was good for getting through my days and being productive, but bad for my heart and my emotional health. The sorrow I felt started manifesting itself as doubts, and worse, regrets, and I finally had to force myself to process the feelings of loss so I could move on.

My friend and I had a good chuckle about how compartmentalizing enables us to release the anxiety of whiny children (well, rarely whiny children) and demanding jobs. Hearing her delight was the best compliment I’ve received in a long time. I felt such joy to know that something I said had made a positive difference in my friend’s life. I pray that I can replicate that.

We can make our minds so like still water
that beings gather about us that they may see,
it may be, their own images,
and so live for a moment with a clearer,
perhaps even with a fiercer life
because of our quiet.

From Earth, Fire and Water
By William Butler Yeats
(b. 1865-1939)