There are many things in our lives over which we have no control. We can try to protect ourselves all day long, but in the end we are still powerless to prevent the setbacks we all suffer as a part of life. So we must learn to surrender to that which is bigger than us.
One of my favorite stories about surrender is that of a Buddhist teacher whose only son died suddenly. The teacher left his monastery for several months to be with his family, and when he came back, he was still very distraught. His students gathered around him and one commented, “Master, you have deep rings around your eyes and the joy is gone from your face. You taught us that all of life is but an illusion! And yet you look so very broken.”
The teacher looked back at his young students, paused, and said, “Yes. Life is an illusion. But children are the greatest illusion of all.”
There are some things we cannot transcend, choiceless moments of pain and loss when philosophy, psychology, and even religion are useless. In these moments, abstraction and doctrine cannot speak to or satisfy the wounds of the heart. The depth of our love—whether for our family, friends, or the organization we’ve poured our soul into—can break open our hearts. And when it does, it’s okay to remember that our pain is choiceless. No matter what we’ve done to prepare, or how “positive” we are about the glass being half full, sorrow will have its way with us.
There are literally hundreds of “think positive” books and web sites with “It’s your choice to be happy!” as their central theme. The thought of looking into the eyes of a bereaved parent whose five-year-old daughter just died and saying, “Remember: It’s your choice to be happy!” hurts my heart. Ninety percent of the time, these books are right. We do have a choice. And we should do everything in our power to make it a good one. But 10 percent of the time, it’s an insult to people’s intelligence and humanity to tell them that it’s their choice to be happy or to have a nice day when their heart is broken and their dreams of the future have been altered forever.
In any given moment, there are countless people across our beautiful planet who are suffering terribly. In a living hell, they have absolutely no power to change their situation. But we have the power to do something. Visionary leaders like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. who commit their lives to ending poverty, violence, hunger, disease, pollution, hatred, brutality, and slavery—and who champion peace, justice, and human rights—are living testimony to what is possible. Meanwhile, those who suffer will continue to summon whatever strength and resources they can to carry on through the grief, heartache, and injustices they endure.
We have the power to heal. To rise out of the ashes of despair. To live and fight another day. To prevail over even the greatest periods of turmoil in our lives. as my good friend, Susan did. Susan’s husband of 32 years was caught in a terrible scandal last year and is now serving time. He is also being sued for a large sum of money. Needless to say, this has turned Susan’s life (and heart) inside out. She has lost her husband and is probably going to lose her home and a good part of their life savings.
Several months ago, Susan decided to move in with her daughter a few towns away and to legally separate from her husband. This has angered her children, who still do not know the full extent of their father’s wrong-doings and cannot understand why Susan is “abandoning him.” Most days, she fluctuates between feeling terribly guilty, furiously angry, and just sad.
Living in her daughter’s small guest house gave Susan some measure of peace. The only friend with whom she’s stayed in touch bought her a small peach tree. There was something about putting her fingers into the soil and planting that tree that made her feel good for the first time in many months—and she decided to put in a small garden. Watering and taking care of her plants every day became a refuge from the world. Her garden was a source of peace, hope, new life, and a new season.
In his classic work Candide, Voltaire wrote, “Il faut cultiver son jardin”—“It’s necessary to cultivate your garden.” If we ever find ourselves in a winter of turmoil, like Susan, perhaps our spring can start somewhere unexpected, like the backyard.
Our most horrific suffering and losses, as my dear Uncle Irv (whose wife was a holocaust survivor) reminded me in a letter sent shortly after Jenna’s death, is the darkness we must summon the strength to overcome. We can lift ourselves up out of even the greatest despair. And help others do the same. Yes, we are powerless, white flags flapping in the turbulent winds of life . . . and we are powerful, beyond measure and imagination.
Though we are powerless when faced with the often-overwhelming challenges life puts in our paths, there are many things over which we do have control. Ironically, sometimes we can only access this hidden reserve of power when we admit our own powerlessness.
You have the power to define and design your life, and to set your terms.
Most of us can name a situation, work- or relationship-related, in which we have felt relatively powerless. Acknowledging and accepting this actually helps us regain power in our lives and make needed changes.
You have the power to recreate your personal journey, choosing a healthy, whole alternative. It’s never too late to tap the strength and get the help you need to change course.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., founder of The Jenna Druck Center in San Diego, is a grief and resilience expert, speaker, organizational and family consultant, and award-winning author of several books including, The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Follow Ken’s blog or find him on Facebook. Join Ken’s email list and receive a free copy of his popular guide, “How to Coach Yourself Through Almost Anything.”
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