Most of us glide through life under the tacit assumption that everything’s going to be just fine. And we work hard to make it so. Inevitably, something (life) happens that changes everything. Our plans are derailed. Standing in the ashes of our plans, heartsick and face to face with risks, doubts, dangers and possibilities that lurk in “the fine print,” we ask, “How could this have happened?”
We close our eyes to the fine print of life most of the time. Who wants to read the “side effects” label of the chemotherapy drugs that may potentially save their life? Or hear that their beautiful 21-year-old daughter may die in a study abroad program, as I did? But when we truly understand life’s terms, we see that it is filled with suffering and joy, ups and downs, clarity and confusion, good and bad. No matter what we do, we will never be immune to life’s changes and losses: business failures, accidents and illnesses, divorce, and—at the darkest depths—the loss of a loved one. Sure as there will be joy, there will be heartache, confusion, conflict and grief.
Finding Strength in Humility
How do we cope with life’s setbacks? How do we come to terms with the fact that sometimes, life is going to hurt like hell?
The answer is: with great humility. There are times of adversity in life when surrender and humility are the most helpful things we can experience. Life brings all of us to our knees. We’re at the mercy of a reality that is so much bigger than our ability to comprehend it. We can all feel so small, so insignificant and so powerless.
Being brought to your knees is different than lying down and taking it. In fact I’d advise you, once again, not to dismiss the feelings of disappointment and despair that may arise. Take a moment to really feel the unfairness and outrage of what has happened. Life is unfair. Period. Acknowledging these feelings and moving toward a place of true optimism may mean that you allow yourself to feel defeated. Don’t self-medicate with trite clichés, busyness or a few drinks. On the contrary: give yourself some time to feel sad, helpless, angry, overwhelmed or scared since that is how you really feel. You didn’t sign up for this. But here it is. So just let yourself feel genuinely angry and disappointed.
And go from there.
Let’s say you just got fired from your job. Say, “Damn!” In fact, be generous with yourself. Give yourself ten “Damn-its!” Voice your objection! Give yourself a chance to say, “This really sucks.” And let yourself feel it. Once you’ve gotten it all out, take a deep breath. Feel the relief that comes from clearing frustration and anger that have been building up. Make space for new feelings. You never know, after all, what’s around the corner.
You may get the best job you’ve ever had as a result of quitting the old one. You just don’t know. Is this way of thinking “negative”? Is it unproductive whining and complaining? Far from it: I’m a very positive person. What I’m “anti” is when people are encouraged to sweep their true feelings under the rug. Sometimes this happens in the “positive thinking” community, but it’s just as likely to happen outside of it. And after all the grief work I’ve done with people whose worlds have been turned upside down, I truly believe that it’s counterproductive for people to be talked out of what they’re feeling by positive thinking or to undergo a “spiritual bypass.”
We can’t just skip over what we’re experiencing because “It’s a part of God’s plan,” “It’s destiny,” or, “God will handle it.” Frankly, that “should feel” approach just doesn’t work when it comes to coping with real life. Better to get real.
My own healing process took being able to be very angry, and to really feel that anger. I remember railing and raging against God for several hours straight. I wanted to spit in the face of the universe for allowing my daughter to die. I had to get that anger out to arrive at a place where I could actually imagine a tear in the eye of God. God was crying with me over my loss. I no longer felt separate and alone or blamed God.
That experience changed everything. Had I not had the safety and permission to get angry at God, or if I had tried to stuff it, hide it, deny it, repress it, hurry it and avoid it, I never could have moved to a place of deeper understanding about God and how life really is.
I’m not saying you need to rage and rail at God. To each his own—we all respond differently to loss. And to adversity. What I’m saying is that you have to allow yourself to have whatever experience you’re having. To be real! It is the processing of these emotions that deepen us, strengthen our heart, and teach us to cope with “real” life. And eventually give us the ability to crawl out of the ashes of adversity. And if someone—anyone—tries to take that away and put a feel-good “positive spin” on the situation, to fix or rescue us from ourselves, then they’ve circumvented a process of deepening, growth, coming to terms and healing.
If we know that life isn’t fair and losses are going to be a part of it—how do we equip ourselves and our children with a working knowledge of the Real Rules instead of placating them with sugar-coated myths, fairytales and quick fixes? How do we help our kids struggle with these issues and develop the kind of coping abilities they will need?
Here are some suggestions for building resilience:
- To sharpen your self-awareness, ask, “Do I expect life to be fair? Am I holding a grudge against life–for hurting me or letting me down?”
- If you are, list the ways life has let you down. Next to each one write: “What would have to happen for me to let go of my grudge is______.” Consider talking about this exercise with a trusted friend or advisor.
- Place a check next to the actions that would help you adopt more of an attitude of humility in life’s most unfair moments:
- Start each day by taking a moment to reflect on the gifts and blessings, hardships and setbacks, in my life
- Remember to breathe and allow the feelings wash over me like water when I’m upset and have suffered a setback. Let them come without judgment . . . and then, let them go.
- Allow the seeds of hope to take root in even the most unexpected of places—like a tender green plant sprouting from under a boulder.
- Use what I have learned to support a friend who is currently facing a hardship, since our personal losses forge us into stronger, more empathetic supporters for our family and friends.
There’s no way to “prepare” for life’s hardships, all we can do is learn better coping skills so that when life knocks you down, you might know how to find your way back up through good care of yourself and others. Helping people feel safe and respected in the presence of a great sorrow is truly sacred.
When I work alongside individuals and families who have experienced the loss of a family member, my goal is to be with them. To really be with them, encouraging them to share whatever it is they might be feeling. Knowing it’s okay to feel totally shattered and defenseless against their own sorrow in that moment allows the next moment to be different. They discover they are not alone, not going crazy, and will, in time, garner the strength to go on.
This article was published on MariaShriver.com in May 2015.