Ben Franklin notably said that the two things in life you cannot avoid are death and taxes. I wish that were the case! But that’s not the case at all, and we all know it. Anytime there is a death; there is also grief and sometimes guilt or remorse. Anytime there are taxes to be paid; there are forms to fill out and bureaucracies with which to interact. The things we can’t avoid in life are probably endless, and one of those things we cannot prevent is going through periods of time when we experience life as difficult.
Just this summer a dear friend of mine lost a loved one after a grueling medical process in which she needed to make a lot of painful decisions. Another friend’s wife died unexpectedly leaving him to parent two young children. A colleague lost her job without warning, and another friend’s spouse walked out suddenly. Many of my friends are firmly in the “sandwich generation” caring for children and aging parents simultaneously.
I would edit Franklin’s quip to say this, there is one thing that life will surely give you, and that is circumstances. If you’re awake and aware, you will see that life deals its hand, and the trick for us is to learn to master the twists and turns with equanimity, grace, and peace of mind. The question is how do you do that?
The challenge is that most people come upon difficult circumstances focusing on the wrong things. There are two places I see that people add to the discomfort of difficult times.
The first place is the nearly universal tendency to focus on the external circumstance rather than on the inner resources you have to master the challenge. Yes, it is excruciating to lose a loved one. No question. It is very demanding to care for an older adult or to manage a full-time job, a commute, and also care for a family with young children. These things are challenging, but they are also the tapestry of life itself. Loving, connecting, caring, and living our values regarding those we love are deeply meaningful ways to engage in life – even when they are painful and draining.
What inner resources do you have? You can focus on living your values and the sense of self-empowerment that brings. You can call on your faith that you have what it takes to meet the challenges ahead. And lastly, you can challenge any belief that life is unfolding in any way other than for your good. That is a fundamental belief to nurture – that life is always benevolent and working for you.
The second place where people add to their difficulty is not accepting the external circumstance for what it is. It is true that it takes time for the mind to adapt to a sudden loss or change. It is also true that seeing “what’s so” about the circumstance will help alleviate the pain and discomfort of the experience and will facilitate your ability to make prudent decisions and move on in a more positive stance toward the situation.
For example, I had a dear friend who was diagnosed with terminal cancer about five years ago. She learned she had just a few months to live and after the immediate shock of the reality of her impending death, she embraced what was happening and lived out her dreams to the fullest. She stayed awake at night in the hospital talking to the nursing staff about things she had wanted to teach for years. I remember her saying to me with such passion and clarity, “Jackie, I have always wanted to be a teacher and now I finally am. I love what I am doing here with the nurses and doctors, and I believe I am making a difference for them. I didn’t want to die, but I am happy knowing that I am going through this in a way that brings all of me to the fore and I am living my values.” Several of the nursing staff and doctors commented on how extraordinary she was. One said to me, “She is by far the sickest patient we have in the unit, but she is also the happiest and most peaceful.” That is the profound difference that living your values and accepting your circumstances brings.
What circumstances are you facing right now? I know that some of them feel great and others challenge and drain you. That is the nature of life. Developing your ability to master your inner world will give you the tools you need to master your outer circumstances, no matter what comes your way. Learning to master your inner world of beliefs, emotions, attitudes, and thoughts is the most important thing you will ever accomplish. It sets you up for a life of self-empowerment, clarity, and competence. Life gets better when you grow more.