Living and Learning

What Happens Next

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What’s Next

A friend was recently faced with a huge disappointment at work, and her response had a big impact on me. She was clearly dismayed but accepted the new information quietly. Then, after an hour or so, she started to consider how to continue in the face of the new reality. When I asked her about her surprising response she said, “I can’t do anything about what has happened; I can only do something about what happens next.” This is the kind of approach to unforeseen problems that we read about in aphorisms and wise quotations but that we rarely see put into action in real life.

In stark contrast to this, two weeks ago I met someone whose life revolves around the various troubles she has endured. Admittedly, she has suffered more than most people and her sorrow is understandable. At the same time, though, she does not seem to have been able to lift herself out of the despondency that she fell into decades ago. Her younger son was born with a disability, and her elder son committed suicide while in college. In addition, she was divorced this year. All terribly sad. I spent two hours with her, and she spent the whole time recounting her sorrows and trials.

I wonder what it is that enables one person to focus on the future while another cannot shift attention away from the past. I may be comparing apples to oranges, but perhaps the everyday challenges such as workplace problems provide us with opportunities to practice our responses to adversity. We need to hear ourselves saying “I can only do something about what happens next” if we are to believe that we can make a new future.

The woman I met is doing things that are noble and praiseworthy. She is an active participant in her younger son’s care-giving, and for ten years she has been leading a support group for families of people who have committed suicide. The trouble with those things, in my view, is that they make it difficult for her to live a re-imagined life. While she continues to participate in a support group she is regularly reminded of her loss. In addition, she doesn’t travel because she feels that she needs to be close to her younger son.

It seems that she sacrificed a future in order to be able to live with the awful past. But, all the sadness and guilt and anxiety that we associate with our troubles aren’t made any easier by giving them our attention. I don’t know when is the right time to say “I can only do something about what happens next,” but it’s probably sooner rather than later.

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5 replies »

  1. So this gave me thought. I agree, our reaction to our problems are the greatest problems. However, without some form of introspection or even dwelling in emotions stemming from the conflict or problems we face in life would there be art?

    The person you described appears to you to be stuck, living in her past or reliving her traumas but you could also see her as an important person to many people (which you noted). Where would we be without these people who take their suffering and their sad stories and stay in it for a while? When is the right time to move on? Why is it sooner rather than later? Why is there a pressure or a higher value placed being light, care-free and able to move on quickly? I guess the example you chose doesn’t illustrate something bad or sad to me. Just something stuck, haven’t we all been a bit stuck for a while?

    Just my questions and thoughts 🙂

    • I completely agree that we all sometimes have to live through trauma. It’s also laudable when people manage to turn those experience to their benefit and to the benefit of others. My post was prompted by the contrast between the two people, and I don’t know if either approach is right or wrong. I certainly don’t expect people who are grieving to be light and carefree quickly. I do think, though, that decades of being stuck make it extraordinarily difficult to get unstuck.

  2. An awesome book to read is “The Power Of Now”. In the end..we are best served to live in the present. But it is a powerful tool, not to spend much time in the past whether it’s wishing for the good old days or recounting the bad. Suffering is a comes from resistance and your friend who moved on..simply allowed herself to suffer less. So it’s not right or wrong it’s just less suffering.

  3. Thank you for the book recommendation. I’ll check it out.

    I’m intrigued by your phrase “suffering comes from resistance.” I’m going to think about it some more before I give you a thoughtful response.

    My own experience has been that it is very easy to settle into a sort of suffering mode, and after a while it’s very difficult to imagine an alternative way of living. Because I’ve been that person, I empathise with those who are similarly stuck, but I also wish I knew of a way to help them out of that despondency.

  4. I’m not sure I know the difference between despondent and depressed, but I do know that depression can sometimes be a chemical imbalance. But for me, a profound sadness is a little like obesity…When I see someone who is in physical pain and can’t move easily or fit in a chair etc, it pains me and I think to myself “I could help them”. But what I know is most people are not ready or open for help even though they are so uncomfortable. I have a friend who has an ongoing battle with her inner demons and I’ve offered help like this…. “It pains me to see you so sad, despondent, grief stricken, unhappy, tormented, whatever she is feeling, and I was wondering, if I could help you, would you be open to explore some suggestions I have that might help? Sometimes she says “yes, that would be so nice” and sometimes she says “no…I’m not ready or in that place right now, but I love you for asking.”

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