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.