I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a friend of mine who has recently separated from his wife. I listened as he talked about all the changes he was going through, and what impact the divorce would have on his young son, and we discussed the possibility of a reconciliation. Eventually it got late, and as the conversation began to wind down I told him, things will work out in the end. Without skipping a beat, he looked at me and said, or they won’t.
He continued. I’m sure the man on death row walking to his execution would like to think that things will work out for him, too–but they don’t.
It stunned me. He was right, of course. Things don’t always work out.
Since that conversation, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about things not working out. I even had a dream the other night about a tiger stalking me. In the dream, I was confident that the tiger wouldn’t harm me, but as it came nearer, and I touched the fur on his head, I said aloud, things might not work out this time. Then I woke up.
We want things to work out. I just finished reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, one of the best books I’ve ever read, which is a triumphant celebration of the life of a man who never gave up on things working out. All around him, surrounded day after day by the horrors of war and inhumanity, he unceasingly saw things not working out for others, yet never gave up hope that things would work out for himself.
Like most of us, I try to be as positive as I can when things don’t work out the way I want them to. I tell myself it happened for a reason, or something good will come of this, or there’s a lesson to be learned here. I’m sure you have your own personal spin for dealing with personal disappointments.
I think it comes down to expectations vs. acceptance. If I have expectations about something happening and it doesn’t, I have a much tougher time accepting the result. If I have no expectations from the outset, my acceptance of things not working out is much easier.
A few months ago I read Loving What Is by Byron Katie. Her message is that we are all basically slaves to our thinking, and our thoughts are not real. We need to look at things as they are and not what we tell ourselves they are. She calls it “meeting reality as it is.” It sounds so basic and easy, but I for one know that I can over-think and over-analyze the smallest thing until it becomes my own personal Mt. Everest of suffering.
Maybe always putting a positive spin on things can be just as illusory and harmful as always being negative. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an entire book on the subject, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Perhaps it’s healthier for us if we give up the expectation of a certain outcome right from the start, and not delude ourselves about what could or should happen.
The point I’m trying to make is this: maybe things work out, maybe they don’t, but perhaps what’s most important is learning to accept whatever does happen. You can spin the story anyway you want, you can get angry, tell yourself it isn’t true and live in denial, or bury your pain someplace deep within where no one can find it, but ultimately you can’t change the reality of what’s happened.
Through acceptance of what is, perhaps we’re more able to move closer to the truth.
(Tiger photo credit: Hollingsworth, John and Karen (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)