What if bad isn’t bad?

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.

Craig Bergland

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!

Sometimes, the pain…

Sometimes, the pain – whether physical, emotional, or psychological – is too much. Despite all of our best intentions and determination, the thought of moving forward is overwhelming. We have listened to doctors, therapists, teachers, and gurus who have all told us that we must press on, but in this moment we feel absolutely exhausted and about to embark on the longest endurance race imaginable and our gas tank is empty. All of the advertising slogans spring into our minds. Just do it, when the going gets tough the tough get going, no pain no gain, on and on they drone beating us down even further even as we scream at them to just be quiet.pain

At moments like these, listen to yourself. Above all, don’t listen to advertising or personal trainers. Don’t do what your friends did in a similar situation because you are not your friends. We all have different specific needs, but we all have a similar need to treat ourselves well and be gentle with our minds and bodies.

A few years back during the fiftieth Super Bowl halftime show they limped out the most valuable player from every Super Bowl. Every last one who had been retired more than five years could barely walk. This is what happens when we refuse to listen to our bodies and continue trying to run through brick walls. A similar, though less visible and likely more damaging, thing happens to our psyches when we try to run through mental and emotional walls.

It quite simply isn’t worth the price we pay when we deceive ourselves about our abilities. Listen to your body and listen to your mind, and slow down before it starts to hurt. If the pain has already started, stop and treat yourself with gentleness and nurturance. Take a bath, soak in a hot tub, go for a walk and connect with nature, pet your dog or cat or partner, breathe deeply, clear your schedule, and do it all with great attention, feeling, and gentleness. Repeat as needed. Whatever issues you may be facing will wait for you. Life is not a race. Allow yourself to heal. It has never been more important.

Pain as Spiritual Teacher

As someone who lives with chronic pain, I can tell you from my experience that it can be a tremendous spiritual teacher. It can also make you want to eat a bullet. Most of the chronic paintime, I find I sit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. You might say that if we constructed a scale in which eating a bullet was a zero and experiencing great spiritual insights was a ten, I live my life drifting between two and nine, with rare peaks at ten. In truth, you only get a brief stop at zero, and I don’t think I will ever be there. At the same time I believe it is important to acknowledge the possibility of zero.

I have read a lot of spiritual teaching from the eastern traditions that suggest we can reduce our experience of pain by not allowing ourselves to be attached to it or to resist it. If I am honest, I must admit that I never really understood what either of those things meant until I came up with my own words to describe what I believe they are trying to get at. In my experience, I struggle more with my pain if I believe that I am not supposed to be in denialcalvin-hobbes690x400pain. In the past I used to believe that I was too young to have this kind of problem, or that it shouldn’t happen to people like me (whatever that means), or some other similar nonsense. I call it nonsense because such beliefs fly in the face of what is. If I am in pain then there is a reason or reasons I am in pain. Therefore, to say that I shouldn’t be in pain flies in the face of reality! I may wish things were other than they are, but that doesn’t change that reality is what it is. If I can drop the idea that things should be different then I can begin the much more important work of dealing with what actually is! In this way, I free myself from the possibility of feeling persecuted or of having been treated unfairly and am freed to live in the present moment. If there is one thing we know, it’s that the present moment in the only moment we can impact.

I would suggest we can apply this reasoning to many life situations we struggle to grasp. If we feel we shouldn’t be pregnant, or bald, or working where we do, the first step to dealing with whatever underlies the issue is accepting that it is, in fact, the truth. If our issue isn’t the truth we can rejoice, because no action is necessary, but if we are bothered by something it is probably true and it is probably exactly how it is supposed to be. Now we can start asking ourselves if it is possible to make a change that will impact our situation.

Believing that things aren’t supposed to be as they are is a kind of denial that our mind creates to help us deal with the unpleasantness surrounding our condition. While denial can help us if we aren’t quite ready to deal with whatever is going on in its fullness, it also can stop us from moving forward if we don’t release it. That is a realization that can help us in many areas of life, if only we will embrace it!

But he’s not up there anymore!

crucifix

I can’t tell you how many people, confronted with a crucifix or other image of the crucified Jesus, say to me, “…but he’s not up there anymore!” Of course, part of the reason they are saying that is they can’t deal with the idea that Jesus ever was “up there.” It was a great problem for the people of his time, too.

Here’s the bigger issue: He isn’t up there, you are correct. Now you are up there. Are you ready to talk about that?