I imagine that all of us, at some point in our lives, have had the experience of feeling less-than-enthusiastic about the circumstances or trajectory of our lives. And then, if we are paying attention, something happens, or someone comes along who reminds us of our relative good fortune: Our perspective can shift instantaneously if we return to a focus on the positives of our life, rather than ruminating on all that we don’t have or have not accomplished.
In recent years, I have spent substantial time with elderly family and friends. I am most often surprised by the different outlooks of each of these people. One is quite well-off and surrounded with caring help, yet seems to become more and more despondent as time passes. A kind word or gesture brightens her immensely, yet the train of her negative thoughts returns quickly and powerfully.
Another friend is of similar age, and is beleaguered by arthritis and severe circulatory issues. Further, and perhaps more potentially debilitating, three of her six children died before the age of 40: one to suicide, one to a car accident, and one to cancer. And yet, her eyes twinkle, she is quick to joke and laugh, and she frequently mentions gratitude for her other loving children. When I articulate my admiration for her ability to transcend some of Life’s most challenging circumstances, she brushes it off, as if to say, “What else would I do?”
There is a choice, however, with regard to how one responds to difficulty—or perceived difficulty. Immediately, I think of the Serenity Prayer, brought to public awareness by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
I address the ability to reframe perceived hardship today, as I was somewhat surprised to find myself still thinking this morning about a conversation that I had yesterday. “April” is a new-ish friend, who also is the aide to my elderly landlady. We both tend to punctuate our discussions with acknowledgements of God’s wondrous workings, even in the midst of seemingly insurmountable challenges. And, as happens sometimes, our energies resonate despite differences in our backgrounds and lifestyles; we just like each other, so a friendship was born.
Yesterday, I asked April about her 15-year-old son. She had mentioned him from time to time, alluding matter-of-factly to “doctor’s visits” or “medical procedures.” My question yesterday arose in an equally off-the-cuff manner, as we were discussing something only vaguely related. April, however, dove right into a detailed response.
First, she asked if I knew that her son was adopted; I had not known. So, she began by telling me that he attends anger management therapy, because he harbors deep rage at his birth parents for placing him for adoption. (He knows his birth mother, but not the father.) I asked if April has seen progress with him, and she told me that he now will sit and watch TV with her for 10 or 15 minutes; previously, he would not be that “close” for any length of time.
Next, she revealed that he suffers from Crohn’s disease, with the unpleasant side effect of rectal bleeding. My heart clenched at the thought of a troubled teen having to endure the agony and perhaps humiliation of medical attention for such an ailment. Further, his kidneys are “blocked,” one fully, and the other partially. (Apparently, there are numerous causes and consequences of this predicament, all treatable.)
As April regaled me with these scenarios, I could not help but regard her with awe. I had been aware that she fosters two other older girls, and also has a biological daughter in her 20s. Additionally, she spends her days caring for “Em,” my landlady. And April has health concerns of her own, which she bears until she is forced to seek medical attention. But then she will return to work and carry on.
So, yesterday was one of those days that once again reminded me that each and every one of us moves through this lifetime on highly personalized paths, playing highly specific roles: Free will comes into play as we consciously attend and respond to our lot. To compare or envy or begrudge serves only to distract us from the fulfillment of our destiny. Once again, the Serenity Prayer seems appropriate, as it is associated with 12 Step programs. I find that to maintain a spiritual approach to mundane concerns requires much the same determination, discernment, and adjustment of perspective that accompanies “one day at a time” adherents.
Or, as I follow the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, I recall one of his “Inspiratonal Thoughts” from his Spiritual Diary (published by the Self-Realization Fellowship). Frankly, when I first read this particular statement, I was a bit frustrated; it seemed annoyingly obvious, and did not offer any “solution.” But my initial reading was about 15 years ago, and the words have revisited me countless times: Ultimately, I have realized that “solutions” are not given; they arise as a result of our faithful determination to instill a new habit of thought, i.e., to think from a hopeful, rather than defeated mindset.
The statement encourages: “A bad habit can be quickly changed. A habit is the result of concentration of the mind. You have been thinking in a certain way. To form a new and good habit, just concentrate in the opposite direction.”