How to make sense of when bad things happen
There’s an old Zen parable that goes something like this: a horse belonging to a Chinese farmer ran away. The neighbours said, “Oh no how terrible!” and he replies, “Good news, bad news, we shall see.” A week later the horse returns with another horse alongside. The neighbours say, “How wonderful! Such good news!” The farmer says, “Good news, bad news, we shall see.” His son set out to tame the new horse and was thrown from it, breaking his leg. The neighbours cried “How terrible!” to which the farmer said, you guessed it, “Good news, bad news, we shall see.” The following week the army appeared in the village summoning all able bodied young men to arms. The farmer’s son was excluded due to his injuries. The neighbours exclaimed, “You are so lucky!” to which the farmer replied (say it with me now) “Good news, bad news, we shall see.”
The point of the story is to showcase that we can’t always see the repercussions of events and so we should not get too attached, good or bad, to the stories we tell about the events.
Part of me thinks this is wise. Most of me thinks this is rubbish.
Humans are meaning making creatures. Since we crawled out of the primordial soup we have been looking for ways to interpret the events around us. We’ve invented all sorts of complex stories to help us live through the adventures. We’ve created myths and Gods. We’ve blamed the humours for illnesses, cursed witches for malicious spells, looked to chicken entrails to foresee the future, heard the sound of thunder and trembled at the wrath of Thor. Each age has its high priests to interpret what it all means for us mere mortals.
Nowadays we have politicians, academic, and scientists.
There are many tomes written on how to take control of our personal narrative. Norman Vincent Peale wrote the classic, The Power of Positive Thinking. His main message is to look for the positive outcomes in what happens. Hello silver lining.
More recently Chris Helder wrote Useful Belief challenged the idea of positive thinking saying it did not fully acknowledge that bad things do happen. He says that you can use belief - which is merely a made up story - to help you take action to get out of the crappy situation. Watch his explanation here.
I think there are elements we can take from the Chinese farmer, Peale, and Helder. Plus one more component.
I agree with the parable that we can’t always see the long-term implications of what happens to us. In fact if we trace back all the good things that happen to us we can usually find a ‘bad’ or unhappy event that triggered the chain of events that led to present day awesomeness. Like how a bad experience in a workplace can give you the kick up the pants to start your own business. Or being dumped by a cheating boyfriend encouraged you to seek out your ideal life partner (the polar opposite of the dufus who just ditched you).
Vincent Peale is right in that we should not dwell and focus on negativity as this just keeps us trapped.
Helder is helpful in showing us that we make it all up anyway, and that our brain is a pliable instrument, so why not use that to our advantage by adopting beliefs that trigger positive action.
I think we need to do an assessment of what happened, and turn it into a learning experience. One useful belief I have is that whatever happens to us, we can learn and grow from it, good or bad.
Bad things DO happen. The gears jammed in my car when I was leaving an intersection and another car rear ended me. Both cars were wrecked. Neither of us nor anyone else was seriously injured. I was pretty shaken up. This was definitely a bad incident: my beautiful car is out of action, maybe permanently and may cost a bit of coin to repair or replace. I had to cancel all my appointments causing further strain on an already jammed schedule. And the other guy has to contend with the fact that he wrecked his boss’ car.
I want to learn from this experience, not just forget about it.
When bad things happen, this is what I suggest:
Assess the damage. All events have consequences. Some feel good, some feel bad. Understand what the consequences might mean for you in the short, medium and long term.
Ask, what can I learn from this? This is the pivot point away from feeling like a victim to being a more powerful creator of your own meaning making experience.
Ask, what do I want instead? This is the forward thinking process of what you can move towards, as Helder suggests.
In a real working example this is how I did it with the recent car accident:
Assess the damage. The car is being assessed as we speak. It might be written off in which case we can get a new car, and amend some of the features we would prefer. Damage to me: a small bruise on left forearm. Damage to others: all ok. All in all, I feel very fortunate to walk away from a car crash alive, well, and intact.
Ask, what can I learn from this? Tough one as I do not anticipate the gears jamming in that way again. My key insight is be more present and grounded when driving. To some deep breathing an anchoring when I step in to the car. To be more intentional with my driving. When I think about the context of the drive, I know I was feeling overwhelmed by my schedule and feeling its weight. I canceled all my appointments that afternoon and this allowed me to think about what I really want in my work schedule.
Ask, what do I want instead? This is when I realised I wanted more command of my schedule, more gaps in it, less frenetic pace.
So was the accident good news or bad news? It was both, and I choose to learn from it and create something better for myself.
This is how we make peace with an event, and move through it feeling more resourceful rather than less.
What event(s) do you need to process and make a better meaning with?
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