Looking out my window early this morning into the pre-dawn darkness, I watched an awesome display of lightning, and listened to the crashing of thunder and hard rain. Nature was speaking in angry and ominous tones, and it reminded me once more that I am a minor creature in the epic known as “Life.”
This phenomena seemed particularly appropriate when penning words about facing life on life’s terms. Five hours later, the sky is mostly white clouds and patches of blue. The storm has passed for now, but not forever. Life is temporal, as are storms, trials, good fortune and bad. Nobody gets a free ride.
If “life” could speak to us, it might laughingly define itself as a dark comedy where flawed and naïve human beings provide the entertainment. Its sardonic humor might rest on the fact that after several millennia much of humanity is largely bewildered about living life successfully on life’s terms. Many, but not all.
I am fully aware that I am not smart enough to expound on the answers to the great questions of life and its seemingly endless complexities. I am, however, infinitely qualified to recognize that it successfully kicked my ass for decades. Yet I now live, and have lived, a rewarding and comfortable “life” for 25 of the last 30-plus years.
Yes, occasionally I get twisted up over events and suffer the consequences, but not often. For the most part I have forsaken the notion that I can control even a minute portion of the universe I inhabit. Finally conceding that I am, in great measure, powerless over other people, places, and things, came as a bitter pill to swallow.
Perhaps you have not yet crossed the bridge of powerlessness. If you are successfully beating life into submission by the force of your will, and doing it painlessly, by all means, carry on. It did not work for me. As momma said, “Life ain’t easy or for the faint of heart.”
Pain Is the Touchstone of Growth
Many a psychologist knows that “Pain is the touchstone of growth,” as evidenced by the never-ending number of folks who are willing to change only when the pain gets to be too much. I sympathize with the die-hards. Surrender is a bitch, but it beats the alternatives in my case.
One thing I know for certain. A victim mentality is guaranteed misery and guarantees aimless thrashing about in search of someone or something to change his status quo. Alas, seldom does the white knight in shining armor show up.
Furthermore, we have all seen people in our personal lives or the public domain who are blessed with talent and opportunity yet self-destruct due to character defects or repeated flawed judgements. Such failures are tragic for the individual and those around them. Collateral damage imposed on the innocent nearby is real, and often unfair. Innocent bystanders harmed by another’s self-will run riot. One might correctly reflect, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Somewhere between keeping a stout heart in the face of trials and tribulations and recognizing when we are powerless lies the secret of living life on life’s terms. There is only so much we can do, and that gives me pause to examine my personal narrative on life. That opportunity and awareness was presented to me by Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps to recovery.
This Alcoholic’s False Narrative of Life
If you are one of those exceptional people who does not suffer at times from feelings of self-loathing, resentment, fear, self-pity, doubt, being judged, unequal, nervous in social settings, and on and on, then you are fortunate. You may also have some difficulty understanding the alcoholic’s dilemma.
I, and many others like me, unwittingly gave those normal feelings more weight than they deserved, and that fed the monster of self-loathing. I drank out of a sense of self-preservation. It was imperative that I make those feelings go away, as soon as possible.
The truth is that perfectly normal people, from good and bad family environs, vastly different income brackets, and people of every faith as well as agnostics occasionally fall prey to the aforementioned false narratives. How you deal with destructive self-notions is what shapes your actions.
I found that alcohol would calm the internal unrest—for a while, until it became necessary for me to just feel normal, until it quit working altogether. That is the moment when many alcoholics hit bottom, the point where the pain sends them looking for outside help.
Adapt a New Narrative to Fit Reality
Life can be incredibly rewarding to those who learn to cope with it in a healthy and disciplined fashion, and infinitely painful to those persisting in their failed narrative of reality. As I discussed in a previous article about alcoholic thinking, our thoughts drive our words, habits, and actions; and eventually our destiny. It behooves all of us to give consideration to our own “intake,” not unlike what we might do in monitoring what our children read and watch.
Let me throw down a “new narrative challenge” for you: try becoming an optimist for the next thirty days, in spite of your very real trials and those manufactured by a false narrative. Your assignment is to find a positive way to turn adversity into a new and positive self-awareness.
Give some thought to the advice of two well-known contemporaries as you go about this test. The first is Charles Swindoll, a leading voice in Christianity as a pastor and author. The other is a great football coach, Lou Holtz.
Swindoll: “We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.”
Holtz: “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
Holtz and Swindoll have spent most, if not all, of their adult lives trying to make flawed human beings “up their performance in the game of life.” They have also witnessed stellar accomplishments and colossal failures. These men understand that the difference between success and failure is often a very thin line, with the seemingly little things adding up for good or ill.
Acceptance is step one. Life is not fair, and like it or not, you will be forced to accept the “hand” life deals to you. Acceptance does not mean intellectual surrender, nor does it mean approval. It simply means life, at this particular moment, is what it is. How you choose to deal with reality becomes the abiding question.
An Attitude of Gratitude Is a Good Place to Start
Those of us who have lived careless or even reckless lives sometimes wonder how we are still alive and kicking. This is especially true when we take the time to remember many good people, often better than we are, who by sheer bad luck were dispatched to an early grave.
Honestly ask yourself, “Am I one of those folks who habitually and blithely walks through life complaining constantly and seemingly never appreciating my good fortune?” Many folks will go to great lengths to mask this truth. Pity them. The chronic adherents to the “poor me” outlook on life are legion. Everybody in their inner circle loses, as negativity and positive thinking are equally contagious.
Every time I watch one of those commercials from St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital I am near tears. How did life deal these innocent children such a bad hand yet I was allowed to squander so many years and opportunities before turning my life around? Seeing their positive attitude, I am rightly shamed.
Our attitude and discipline provides us with our best chance of living out this melodrama to the best of our limited ability. In fact, Cicero subscribed to the “attitude of gratitude” mantra: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
If you can embrace an “Attitude of gratitude” for all the consequences fate did not impose for your missteps, and unearned grace at other times, you have taken a giant step forward.
The Way Forward
When we get “right-sized” and see the tribulations of others, it is much easier to be grateful. Living life on life’s terms is recognizing that nobody gets a free ride, so face the setbacks with the attitude that they are lessons; it was not as bad as it could have been. Summon the courage and determination to turn it into a positive learning experience. Be a positive example for others, and you will know a new freedom and happiness that is so rewarding, you will never want to go back to your old way of thinking.
Successful people often look back at events they thought were bitter disappointments at the time, only to realize later it was a blessing in disguise. If you are grateful and humble enough to find the silver lining in your own growth over adversity, you are a winner for life.
No person nor any event can rob you of your newfound dignity for any extended period of time. There is a new and better “you” waiting to be set free. Don’t disappoint yourself! AA’s Serenity Prayer poignantly captures the acceptance concept:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can
And the wisdom to know the difference