Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

When Life's Unfair: How to Deal with Fines for Being Alive

How do you best respond to life's unjust setbacks?

You're minding your own business. Taken all due precautions. Haven't had any mental lapse. Been responsible and conscientious. Certainly, haven't hurt anyone, or done anything wrong. In a word, you're innocent. . . .

Then, out of the blue, someone at the supermarket abruptly turns into your aisle, sneezes in your face--and you end up with a bad case of flu. Or dutifully following a traffic signal, you stop at a light that just turned red--and are promptly rear-ended. Or you meticulously plan a family re-union picnic--only to see the special occasion ruined by a most unseasonable, and never forecast, storm. Or jogging at twilight, listening to your i-pod, you trip on a barely visible sidewalk crack--and fracture an ankle. Or your broker (who came highly recommended from your most trustworthy friends) designs for you a portfolio of equities, almost all of which turn out to be duds.

Get the picture? Although I've yet to encounter the term, I've come to view all such mishaps, or setbacks, as simply "fines for being alive." They're fines you can pretty much count on having to pay--if only by virtue of occupying space on planet Earth. From time to time, and without advanced warning, life will deal you a slight, an insult, an undeserved blow of some sort that you can hardly help but experience as totally unjust. It's like suddenly being relegated to a penalty box, without having committed the slightest foul.

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And why do I find this concept so intriguing? Simply because--personally and as a therapist--I've come to believe that discovering how to accept the bad things that gratuitously happen to you--that is, to take them in stride--is absolutely crucial if you're to achieve a steady, virtually unshakeable, state of well-being.

Let's face it. There are an abundance of things over which you can exert only limited control. So if you're to overcome the various barriers that temporarily block you from objects of your desire, it's critical to learn how to maintain emotional poise in the face of them. Even though these obstacles may temporarily deter you, you still need to hold onto your composure and doggedly continue to pursue your goals. Sure, your progress may be impeded, but it doesn't really have to end. Although your destination may be reached later than you'd hoped, as long as you don't falter you'll get there all the same. When, through no fault of your own, things just don't seem to be going your way, it's essential that you figure out how not to lose your way.

There are times in our life when we may feel besieged by events seemingly contrived, almost demonically, to overwhelm us. Nonetheless, our capacity for control during these times--our ultimate power--is to expand our space to include such disappointments, challenges, provocations, and demands. And, despite such adversity, to hang tough and resolutely adhere to our life path.

How easy--or difficult--is this to do? In general, I'd say the ability to adapt to life's frustrations varies in proportion to your personal evolution. Adjusting or accommodating to below-the-belt blows of "outrageous fortune" hardly hinges on some inborn personality trait either. For the most part, it simply reflects how much you've been able to learn from painful lessons in your past. And being able to make allowances for--and come to terms with--all that interferes with your desires doesn't really come naturally. It's something that requires conscious cultivation. So when something blatantly unfair happens to you, be ever-mindful of how (between your ears) you process it.

You need to carefully mull over how you're going to respond to anything keenly felt as an injustice. Succumbing to the temptation to react with impulsive anger may offer the immediate consolation of feeling righteous, self-righteous, or morally superior. But the associated costs of taking this low road to "re-empowerment" is that it inevitably sacrifices your inner tranquility, your peace of mind. And the more you invest your vital stores of energy in getting back at whatever you perceive as having harmed you, the more likely you are to turn immediate setbacks into chronic limitations and constraints. In which case your choosing (however unwittingly) not to "get on with it," not to move forward in your life's journey, becomes no one's responsibility but your own. Inadvertently, it's you yourself that have blocked the way to personal satisfaction and fulfillment.

So, when you're suddenly taken aback by one of life's periodic fines, how can you best respond?

Here are my three "A's" for quickly moving beyond the unwelcome obstacles that, fortuitously, may have landed squarely on your path:

Assess. Ask yourself just how serious this particular "fine" is. Might you be exaggerating its importance? In the moment, that unwelcome "tariff" (or "life tax") may feel awful--perhaps even catastrophic. But, upon painstaking reflection, is it possibly not that much more than an annoyance, or inconvenience? Finally, how much of your life (if any) do you actually want or need to devote to it?

Accept. Just acknowledge that you've been fined for, well, nothing. Remind yourself that it makes little sense to stew over whatever misfortune you've unexpectedly been subject to. Make up your mind not to let it bother you any more than absolutely necessary.

Act. Now that you've decided not to waste your mental and emotional energy by obsessing upon or brooding over your bad luck--or by ruminating about how you might retaliate--what's the best action to take? How can you best cope with this setback? Might you work around it? Do you need temporarily to put something aside to effectively deal with it? Would it help to get a friend, or professional, to assist you? . . . Or might it suffice simply to let out a single, extended, self-compassionate sigh--and then, life-affirmingly, begin to put it all behind you?

And--once you've become proficient in implementing this fairly straightforward problem-resolution procedure--go ahead and give yourself an "A," too (!).

Note: If you can relate all-too-well to this piece (sigh), and can think of others who might also, please consider passing it on.

 © 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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