When life runs smoothly, we usually find it easier to feel happy and relaxed: our coffee maker delivers fresh hot coffee, the car starts and gets us to our destination, and the umbrella stays intact, despite the driving wind and rain. When our days are filled with these little marvels, our lives become easier. We may yearn for more of these days, but find that they diminish in number as we get older and life gets more complicated. Although we may gravitate toward the easier life, it is when times get tougher that we discover our internal character and resilience.
This concept makes me think about the television show “The Amazing Race”. In this show, teams comprised of two contestants race around the world and complete challenging tasks, trying to arrive at the finish line first and eventually win the coveted prize of one million dollars. As much as our family enjoys glimpses of another country’s gorgeous scenery or unique cultural traditions, the true intrigue of the show lies in how teams handle adversity. Contestants get lost, fail to complete tasks after multiple tries, lose passports, and face any number of other difficulties. In every season, the teams who refuse to panic or blame each other, but instead find ways to work through and overcome problems, typically come closest to achieving the ultimate victory. So it goes for us in our own lives: when we focus on inner strengths rather than outer struggles, we can find strength and contentment even though our days may be far from perfect.
In our household, issues with technology contribute regularly to our minor hassles. Most recently, a family member needed to print a document for school, when our printer conveniently decided to “go offline”. We tried searching the internet for answers, turning it off and on again, and printing from another device; nothing was going to convince this printer to cooperate. The more emotionally distraught we became, the less we could think logically or come up with viable solutions. We felt panicked, frustrated, and annoyed, but instead of expressing these emotions and letting them go, we shifted into “hurry up” mode and pressured ourselves to fix the problem instantly. We actually could have thought more clearly and arrived at a solution faster, if we slowed down and gave ourselves a little time to consider the best options. Eventually, someone realized we could use a neighbor’s printer and we got the document we needed, but no one felt good about how we had handled that minor adversity.
A few weeks passed until we needed to use the printer again. Perhaps it will come as no surprise, given modern technology, that this time our printer completely surprised us and worked flawlessly on the first try. We shook our heads in amazement and prepared to move on to the next task. My mind flashed back to a few weeks earlier and the “printer offline” message that led to our panic and failure to cooperate with each other. We gave that stubborn printer our complete and undivided attention until we gave up and used a different one. Now that the printer was working, we were about to skip right over our good fortune and move on without as much as a second thought. Why was an obstacle worthy of so many harsh and negative comments, while a lucky break gets barely a mention? So, for the next few minutes, we each took turns commenting on how fortunate we were that the printer worked quickly; we strengthened our resolve to appreciate life’s minor conveniences. We felt a little silly, but doing this helped erase a bit of the memory of our prior meltdown. It also reminded us that we balance our perception and improve our ability to cope with problems if we start noticing all the times when things “go right”.
We overcome small adversities by recognizing and working through our emotions, taking a moment to think through strategies, and remembering to celebrate the ever present blessings all around us. Life’s bigger and more ongoing challenges require these same approaches, albeit on a larger scale. My sister and brother-in-law encountered a more significant challenge when my niece was eighteen months old. She developed concerning medical symptoms, including failure to gain weight and severe stomach pain after eating. Doctors at first minimized her parents’ concerns, but they persisted in asking for additional tests. At three years old, my niece was diagnosed with celiac disease. Consumption of food with gluten would cause a strong reaction and stomach illness in the short term, and increase the risk of lymphoma, thyroid disease, anxiety, depression and other conditions in the long term.
Did her parents feel apprehensive and overwhelmed when they realized the lifestyle changes needed to ensure their daughter’s health and well-being? They most certainly did. Did they stay stuck in those feelings and let them drive their words and actions? They most certainly did not. They sent a powerful message about love and devotion to their daughter by developing a plan larger than their adversity. They scoured their city for restaurants with the best gluten free menus. They filled their house with foods that are naturally gluten free and highly nutritious. They educated teachers and caregivers about their daughter’s dietary needs. They also found amazing gluten-free recipes, including one for chocolate chip cookies, better than any gluten-filled ones I have ever tasted.
My niece is now 13 years old, an excellent student, and a fantastic cross country runner. She encountered a challenge at a young age and, with the help of her family, responded in a way that makes life much more about the things she loves than some foods she cannot eat. She exemplifies the notion that all of us can triumph over adversity, whether it be a trivial concern or a more significant hurdle.
Most of us will never race around the world trying to win a million dollars, but we are on a much more important personal journey. Every time we refuse to let adversity hold us back, we see more clearly our own path toward happiness and increase our ability to enjoy all the good fortune just waiting to be enjoyed in life.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.