It has been rightly said that the only moment we have is the present moment. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future has not yet arrived and so is beyond our reach. It seems so obvious, so simple, yet how much time do we spend fixating on the past or dreaming of the future? How often does “if only I had…” cause us to completely miss new opportunity when it arises? Certainly there are things to be learned from past mistakes, but those learning opportunities aren’t a bottomless well. Most mistakes we make are relatively small and so offer a paucity of learning. Even our major mistakes only offer a few lessons. If we find ourselves ruminating about something months or even years after it has happened, we aren’t trying to learn, we are trying to avoid something.
I find it helpful when I am stuck to remember that the “why?” question is most often not very helpful. Most often we cannot know with any degree of certainty why things happen. When we allow ourselves to get stuck there, it may well be that we are actually trying to avoid moving forward. Why something happened or why someone did something is much less important that what we will do next given what has happened. What is the lesson in our experience? What is it trying to teach us? How can we avoid whatever mistakes we made in the future? We need to ask these questions not to berate or otherwise punish ourselves, but to learn. Once we have learned, it is time to move on.
The truth is that, no matter what a perfectionist might tell you, mistakes are a normal part of life. I believe that every experience, positive or negative, arises to teach us something. Our goal shouldn’t be perfection, it should be learning and growth. There are very few activities in which a mistake means we don’t get to try again, and most of those can be avoided. Mistakes are much less critical outside the arenas of sky diving and bungee jumping! Learn, and then move on. Don’t let life pass you by as you seek a perfection that doesn’t exist!
I saw an interview on one of the news channels of a corona virus denier. The man said that he didn’t really believe the virus was any worse than the flu. When the reporter countered with the fact that (at that time) there had been over one hundred fifty thousand deaths in The United States, the interviewee responded “I don’t agree with that number.” This one statement reflects the heart of the problem – facts are not opinions.
You can’t disagree with a fact, at least not if you are a rational human being. Perhaps more accurately, you can’t disagree with a fact without dire consequences. If you disagree with the fact of gravity, it will not end well for you. When presented with a fact, our job isn’t to agree or disagree, but to respond. We need to ask ourselves how we are called to respond in light of the fact. Pretending the fact doesn’t exist will only lead to foolish choices. Sadly, at this point in time we see many people making just such foolish choices and paying the price for them. Still the fact deniers continue. Maybe that’s the appeal of denying facts. Maybe you feel quite wise and powerful until you don’t, but then you’re dead so you avoid responsibility for your foolishness. That’s a steep price to pay for a few seconds of delusional certainty.
I believe that part of the reason we see so many people eager to exchange opinion for fact is that we have, as a culture, bought into the idea that we have to be perfect. That idea is fiction, nothing more. We learn from making mistakes, and nobody comes into this world immune from mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, and to avoid them is to ensure than we learn nothing. It is uncomfortable to fail, sometimes profoundly so, but I have never had a failure that wasn’t a learning experience. Pretending that we have never failed reveals more about us that any success ever could.
First, a disclaimer: The ideas in this post are under development and not finalized in any way, shape or form. I reserve the right to denounce the entire contents at any time in the future.
What if bad isn’t bad? Asked another way, what if the things that happen that we identify as bad are in fact neither good nor bad, but rather represent challenges and opportunities for growth? What if stuff happens, and our job isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves or wonder why a “bad” thing could happen to someone as marvelous as I, but rather to work through whatever it is? What if that process of “working through” is nothing more than the challenge of a human life and the vehicle for growth?
I am thinking here of the old question that gets asked and reformulated about every thirty seconds – why do bad things happen to good people? Religious people ask why God doesn’t stop these things from happening. Eastern religions tend to explain away the bad things by attributing them to karma, which means we deserve them and so have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s a tidy package, but one that I find ultimately unsatisfying and incomplete. Is there anything about life that is tidy? The other problem with karma as a theory is that it can’t be disproven. We can’t go back into the past and see whether or not we did anything that would require that we die in a house fire in this life. It is sometimes said that a theory has to be falsifiable, which means that just because you can’t prove something is false doesn’t mean it is true.
Suppose the biblical writers were correct when they suggested that the challenges of life are opportunities for growth? Considering that almost everybody encounters some tragedy in their life and that for all our attempts to eliminate tragedy it keeps on happening, perhaps those attempts are an exercise in missing the point. Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” questions and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.
Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” question and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.
When I think back to my days working in mental health, I recall a huge number of people who were stuck on the “why me?” question. Maybe the answer is, “because everybody.” What if all the time we spend going over and over the wrongs that were done to us needs to be countered with the truth that really ugly stuff happens to everybody, and so a better focus would be “what is this shitty experience meant to teach me?” In this way every tragedy could be redeemed and the energy we expend trying to decode the impossible could be turned toward moving forward. That’s not to say that the lousy things that happen aren’t painful. They are indeed painful, but we magnify that pain when we assume that we have been singled out and are alone in our misery.
This ends the pity party and removes any excuse to wallow in what may well be an essential part of life as if we are a victim. It also frees me from being defined by misfortune because misfortune leads to opportunity. I will never see that opportunity if I can’t move beyond the victim role, and this gives me the vehicle to do precisely that. We will still need to take time to understand our history, but our history no longer defines us because we all share similar histories. What tremendous freedom!
Fear isn’t a bad thing. In fact, when it pops up appropriately it serves an important function – it keeps us safe. When you are crossing the street and hear the sound of a bus bearing down on you, fear arises and helps kick your body into action to avoid becoming road kill. That’s good fear. When you are driving down the street and notice a flooded intersection, good fear tells you to turn around rather than try to drive through. False bravado encourages you to forge ahead into the intersection and the sink hole hidden under the water. Even if we could banish fear from our lives, it would be unwise. Many of us, however, experience fear that isn’t helpful. One of those is fear of the unknown.
We live in a time unlike any other in our lifetime, unless we happen to be over one hundred years old. Our lifestyles have been suspended by a world-wide pandemic. It seems like nothing about our lives is the same as it was just six months ago. We don’t know what life will be like once the corona virus is under control, but there is at least a chance that there will be a new normal. We have seen that Americans are poorly equipped to respond to this kind of a crisis. Our obsession with what we incorrectly assume is independence – it’s really selfishness – leads us to make awful choices because we don’t seem to realize we live in a society and selfishness is maladaptive. To cite but one example, people in other parts of the world have worn face masks for years. In those cultures they understand that not wearing a mask is rude and inconsiderate. In America some of us believe being rude and inconsiderate is something to wear like a badge of honor.
So many of our maladaptive behaviors emerge from fear. In uncertain times, fear lurks around every corner. It can help, when we feel fear arising, to ask ourselves about that fear. Is it present to alert us to danger, or is it the result of uncertainty? If it’s uncertainty that is the issue, can we recall other times when uncertainty arose and everything worked out well? Can we see that only rarely does uncertainty lead to problems that can’t be resolved? Even more importantly, can we see that quite often what lies beyond uncertainty is an opportunity for growth? The truth is that uncertainty and growth can help us to move beyond fear into opportunity. We may need that ability now more than ever.
M. Scott Peck, of The Road Less Traveled fame, liked to save everything is multiply determined, which sounds much cooler than “has multiple causes” but isn’t quite as clear, so I surrendered coolness for clarity. That may be the story of my life, but that’s another post.
I was in a room full of people gathered around a common purpose last summer. As they moved about I suddenly saw quite clearly that they were all responding to one another out of the dysfunction of their histories. I could only see that because I knew some of the people, but the insight was powerful. In effect, they weren’t responding to one another at all but rather to a great combination of people past and present, most of whom (and in some cases all of whom) weren’t physically present. There were, however, dozens of uninvited guests who were psychically present.
It was as if everybody had been handed a script as they walked in the door. Since there weren’t enough copies of the same script for everybody, copies from three or four different plays had been randomly distributed. Nobody wanted to be rude, so nobody mentioned the different scrripts. They simply read their lines at what seemed to be the appropriate time, whether or not they made any sense. At the end of the night everyone went home confident that a great time was had by all – except, of course, for anyone who tried to make sense of it all. Those people were mostly silenced by the others who were afraid that the mystique would be broken and actual sharing might occur, opening the door to emotions and other messiness not generally encouraged in polite company.
As a result nobody was transformed, no one experienced growth, no connections were made, and those with some level of awareness noted that they left a room full of people feeling somehow more lonely. Getting to the bottom of such things required time and, most often, some assistance, so most people prefer to just put such things away in a closet in the basement of their live. They carefully padlock the door so nothing can escape, but as the contents of the closet sit unattended they grow. The roots of the issues become entangled and potbound, depleting the energy of their host, until one day they demand attention and refuse to be ignored.