What's Your Canary in the Coal Mine? | The BridgeMaker

What’s Your Canary in the Coal Mine?

By on Aug 20, 2009


If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. – Mary Engelbreit

Article written by BridgeMaker contributor Paul D. Fitzgerald. Follow him on Twitter.

My wife’s grandmother seemed to always have a canary at her house in a small West Virginia river town. Growing up, Susanna never really gave it much thought since her grandfather was already deceased.

Her grandmother was the local unofficial social worker in the community who took in husbands to sleep off their drinking after getting paid. She kept them safe and prevented them from spending their wages or being robbed before they could get home to the family.

We were talking about her grandmother’s influence on her life as well as the untold families she helped when she mentioned always seeing the canary. Just then she recalled that her grandfather had been a coal miner like so many others in the area.

“No wonder she had canaries. They were used by the miners as an early warning system. They could tell from their behavior about the presence of toxic gas before the men could detect it.” Not very high tech, but pretty cost-effective given the options.

I had not recalled that story for a long time but recently it came back to me. I was standing face-to-face with a man who had just come to amazing clarity about the negative impact of the toxic beliefs he had held for years. One look in his eyes and I had no doubt he was ready to change and create a different life.

I heard myself saying to him, “What’s going be the canary in your coal mine?” It was totally out of context but he knew exactly what I meant.

We all need feedback to make obvious what we don’t see. Who can change anything about themselves if it doesn’t even exist? With all of our best intentions about creating a quality life it is easy to fall back into old patterns that are more life-taking than life-giving. Identifying the “canary in our coal mine” can be a life-saver.

Sometimes the quality of our physical health can be a canary. When we begin feeling run down, tired, not resting well, sleeping too much, find ourselves anxious, have an increase in blood pressure or a host of other symptoms – the canary is trying to tell us something important if we will pay attention.

When our heart-connection with the people closest to us is diminishing the quality of the relationship we want, they can become canaries if they will be honest with us and we are willing to receive their feedback.

Missed opportunities to be with them because we’re too busy. Feeling like we’d rather isolate than be with them may be a sign. The look of disappointment in the eyes of someone you love – friend, spouse or children – is the canary screaming for attention. Often what we hear audibly is a “sigh” of resignation. Perhaps you’ve heard the adage, “Sighs are often silent screams.”

The truth is that most of us have all the canaries we need in our life. The real question is “Am I willing to pay attention to the feedback?”

Yes, there are people in all of our lives whose feedback is manipulative and may give false signals for their best interest and not our own. That makes it all the more important that we choose which of the canaries we are going to trust with our life.

Dr. Paul Fitzgerald is a Life Coach and offers several dimensions to help clients move toward personal wholeness and create a fulfilling life. You may contact Dr. Paul at drpaul@heartconnexion.org.

He founded and serves as Executive Director of HeartConnexion Ministries, Inc, a non-profit organization that offers experiential spiritual formation and personal effectiveness training designed to aid individuals to face the barriers and fears that limit their lives. Seminars offer personal freedom to BreakThrough and make a healthier MarriageConnexion, find a fulfilling PurposeConnexion and an empowering SpiritualConnexion.

Dr. Paul Fitzgerald is a Life Coach and offers several dimensions to help clients move toward personal wholeness and create a fulfilling life. You may contact Dr. Paul at drpaul@heartconnexion.org.

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  • Paul:

    What a great concept. So simple and so obvious and yet so true. What’s the warning sign that we’re heading in the wrong direction… I’m totally going to start thinking about that for my Somedays. Thanks!

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  • Gene Chapman

    I agree with Dr. Paul completely. In my expirence, I have found that my life used to be so hetic, that I didn’t allways listen to my canary in my coal mine. This is especially true if you are a caregiver.

    This little story is proof that one (myself) must have a self-caring time, to re-charge, re-cuperate, etc. Being self-caring IS NOT being SELFISH!