“So much for Plan A,” my coaching client, Adelle, told me a few short hours after being diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer.
“This is not what I signed up for, Ken. I’m only 43 and I’ve got my whole life ahead of me. It’s just not fair!”
Adelle is right: life is not fair. For you, me or anyone else. No matter how rich, famous, successful, smart, devout, powerful or young we are, or how good we’ve been, life will have its say.
An accident, illness, divorce, business failure or natural disaster can change everything in an instant and suddenly we find ourselves in new and unfamiliar territory called Plan B.
Life is Not Fair is one of the 23 real rules I talk about in my book, The Real Rules of Life: Balancing Life’s Terms with Your Own.
Another real rule that ties directly into this is There are No Deals.
Some of us think we have a deal when it comes to life. We may not even be conscious of it but we assume we’re exempt or immune from any really serious problems. And that “get out of jail” card we’ve been carrying around will surely save us if we get into trouble.
Or, we’ll get a special dispensation just in time to protect us, and our families from anything really bad happening. But, in reality, there are no guarantees, exemptions or escape clauses in life.
Losses, setbacks, disappointments and unexpected periods of hardship are a part of life — and learning to cope with them is something we must all eventually learn.
It’s not always a tragedy, however, that unveils the real rules of life and opens our eyes a little wider. Life’s miracles are also a deep and rich source of discovery. We marvel at the birth of a child, life-saving drug or heroism of a wounded soldier.
Perhaps less obvious are the miracles that are so much a part of our everyday lives that they often go unnoticed. Right there, under our noses, are the subtle, ordinary, everyday blessings like having our health and a steady job, being a parent, having a roof over our heads and feeling the love in our lives.
Add to that, the privileges and benefits of freedom and of living in a part of the world where human rights, the environment and our safety are protected.
And finally, there are the life-changing relationships, job opportunities, dreams, miracles and awakenings that are just around the corner and soon-to-be-realized in our lives.
No, we don’t need tragedies and disasters to show us what is most precious and irreplaceable.
The 23 rules revealed in The Real Rules of Life are not pie-in-the-sky abstractions. They come from the hard-earned lessons I learned after losing my daughter, Jenna, 16 years ago — and from helping others survive similar tragedies, including 9-11, Columbine High School and Hurricane Katrina.
Fighting through despair and rising up out of the ashes of a shattered Plan A is something all of us are challenged to master in this life. Sooner or later.
The real rules also come from remembering to count our blessings and cultivate a deep sense of gratitude for all that has gone well and right in our lives.
We learn to take the good with the bad. That life is a package deal. And that it can be breathtakingly beautiful one minute and heartbreaking the next.
Coming to terms with life the way it truly is, dispelling ourselves of our fears, illusions and false certainty, takes great courage, intelligence and humility. We continue to dream our dreams, hope our hopes and set our terms, yet we understand that life has it’s own terms.
Facing into life and the experience of being human, from daunting challenges and mysteries to cultural myths (about things like “closure”) teaches us to be more truly honest with ourselves. We gain a greater sense of integrity.
When we make peace with life we begin to make peace with ourselves.
The more self-accepting and less judgmental, more self-aware and less defended, more self-compassionate and less self-critical, more humble and less arrogant we are, the better we ripen as human beings.
We may not have “signed up for cancer,” as Adelle pointed out earlier, or have lost a child, like my beautiful Jenna. We may not have had to rise up out of the ashes of a loss or illness and fight our way back into life. But we can cultivate the strength of heart and mind to be able to cope with life.
Learning to air out (rather than repress) pain, manage (rather than hide) despair, and release (rather than deny) fear, helps us transform adversity into new meaning and strength.
Life is life. We don’t get to play God. Control everything. Or set all the terms. We can be the best possible us, make the most of what we’ve got, and rise up out of the ashes when we need to.
Life may not be fair, and there may not be any deals, but we can chose to count our many blessings and write new and exciting chapters into our lives — working hard and hoping for the best.
I can live with that.
This article was originally published on MariaShriver.com. Copyright Ken Druck, Ph.D., author of The Real Rules of Life (Hay House, tradepaper 2013).