Life is Messy

I love a good motivational book. My shelves are stuffed with things like “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh or “How Starbucks Saved my Life” by Michael Gill. I have read everything that Dale Carnegie ever wrote, likewise Mitch Albom. I was recently called to serve jury duty and found myself with long hours in the courthouse reflecting on the predicament that the accused in the case were confronted with. There are some times when life hits you with curve balls- sometimes of your own making, often not- and all of the positive thinking or great rags-to-riches stories ring hollow and aren’t going to help you get where you need to be. Sometimes life just genuinely sucks and it really doesn’t help to hear how great it has been for someone else to turn it around. So what then? A few watershed moments for me that came to mind:

I remember when I was 12 and very sensitive about being one of the “poor kids” in a wealthy community- painfully aware that my clothes were hand me downs. One day in the cafeteria a boy I liked said loudly “I like your pants, I used to have some like that”. As soon as the “thank you” passed my lips, he said with a smirk “and then my family got off welfare”. Ouch.

I remember when I was 18 — a freshman in college- and I got my final grades from my first year of “studying” — my GPA was a whopping 1.6. There was a real crystallizing moment of “wow, you have made some really bad decisions”. It was the first time I can really remember thinking that the decision to stay on the wrong path or to move to a new path was mine alone.

I remember when I was 24 and I held my little baby, so small and so perfect- and also dead –in my arms and I cried and cried and thought I would never be happy again. And later within that year when I saw my father- 49 years young- on his death bed and wondered why life had to be so incredibly difficult.

I remember the day I told my children that their father and I were getting a divorce — and seeing the incredible sadness on their faces. There are some moments you wish you could forget, but life doesn’t work like that.

I could go on and on- but my life is no different from everyone else’s- filled with moments of incredible joy and happiness, and immeasurable sorrow, and yet life goes on. We do the best we can- we pick ourselves up and we move on- maybe a little more broken, maybe a lot stronger- some days better than others. But how to get up when it just seems like you can’t get out of bed and face the challenge?

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Here is what worked for me:

1) Faith. You may not be a religious person and you may not think there is a higher power. Although for me my faith, and my religion, is my cornerstone and definitely is what keeps me afloat. I have many people in my life who would call themselves atheists, and I think this still applies to them. Everyone believes in something. Everyone has some core, fundamental truths about how they want to be, or how they want the world to be. When life is at the bottom- that is the best time to regroup around what is most central. It may just be remembering how someone loves you unconditionally- that may be God or your mother. It may be that you believe that somewhere deep inside you have something to be thankful for. Step 1 is finding that central kernel of truth and goodness that you can latch onto.

2) Friends. Family. Loved Ones. I will never forget when I came back from the hospital facing that empty crib- so many of you know what that feels like. If it weren’t for the love of my son, my friends who cared for me and cried with me and shared their stories of similar loss, and my family that just loved me and let me alone when I just needed to keep being sad a little bit longer, I am not sure I could have eventually moved on.

3) Know what else can go wrong. Unfortunately, things may look bleak, but they can still probably get worse. Murphy’s law is very, very real. It was only a few days when I got out of the hospital after losing the baby that I learned my father had cancer and wasn’t expected to live much longer. In truth I was pretty numb, this is where I think about people who are in POW camps or other hard to conceive horrific situations, yet who come out with great attitudes and mentally strong. Apparently, these people have a blend of realism about their situation as well as optimism that eventually things will work out. One of my favorite sayings is “In the end, it will all work out. If it hasn’t worked out, it isn’t the end”. I know this is hard to do when, for instance, faced with incredible grief or something that is devastating on an epic scale. What I have earned is that trite expressions like “time is a healer” are actually pretty true. I have learned to hang onto that one particularly well.

4) Mitigate. With life and death there isn’t much we can do to mitigate- that is just the human condition. But for so many things- my bad grades in school, for instance, that was just a matter of an honest assessment that really required a change in attitude and hard work. For so many problems we face, it is because we don’t want to do the hard, sometimes boring, work to get it done right- whatever “it” is. For instance if you resolved today to i) eat very healthy ii) exercise a little bit every day iii) work on your personal relationships and commit to making them strong iv) get into a treatment program if you have a substance abuse problem v) get that extra job if you need the money, or spend less if you can’t afford your life vi) make a plan to be on top of your finances (what my son calls “get your wallet straight”) vii) stop procrastinating, making excuses and having a pity party about the past viii) be thankful every day for what you do have — many, many problems would take care of themselves. Then you are left with the outlier catastrophe- which we will all face- and that is where you need your friends, your family and the kindness of others to help you through.

You may be reading this and thinking- “I have been smart in managing my life and I have never had any catastrophe”. If that is the case, congratulations! You are either really lucky or about 5 years old. Either way, realistically speaking your turn is coming too. What I have found is that the people I know who have had some serious bad stuff happen to them are much better at rolling with life’s little bumps- because they know the difference between a big problem and a small one. Whenever I meet someone who overreacts to a small problem I think — wow, they are really lucky because they clearly haven’t had anything bad to deal with. Some of my closest friends and family members- you know who you are!- have dealt with some real stuff- and they are the most gracious people I know- and the most willing to help others. The last thing I would say is I am a big believer in what goes around comes around- so if you have a chance to help someone when life is going ok for you, do it. You never know when it will be you who needs the hand.