You’re watching the TV news. The reporter is describing a terrible car accident that just took place on the highway. A mother of three children was rear ended by a careless driver who fell asleep at the wheel. The woman survived the collision unscathed. Unfortunately, her three children all died in the accident.
After describing the sad events, the reporter wraps up the segment by saying, “Three children instantly killed in the collision. The tragic accident was something no parent should ever have to go through.”
I’m sure you’ve heard a variation of the reporter’s commentary throughout your life. Maybe you’ve even said something similar to the following:
No one should ever have to experience (fill in the blank).
But the truth is, if you live long enough, you’re most likely going to experience some significantly stressful event: a loved one will die. You’ll get sick. Someone will mistreat you. The list goes on.
“I’m a good person, how could this happen to me?” is one question so many of us ask ourselves when tragedy strikes.
The reality is bad things happen to everyone.
We live in a world filled with catastrophes. Just click on your favorite news website, and you’ll see a long list of stomach churning, tear jerking events. The problem with clinging to the mindset that you or someone you know doesn't deserve to experience a certain painful event, that it’s unfair, that it shouldn’t have happened, is that it increases suffering.
When Adversity Strikes We Have Two Options: Accept What Is or Suffer
There is much confusion about “accepting what is.”
Many caring, compassionate people confuse it with indifference. They contend, “That’s terrible. I don’t want to accept what is and sit back and do nothing.”
I agree. Accepting what is, in the context I’m describing is not the same as throwing your arms in the air and doing nothing. In fact, I am a strong believer in taking action when you witness injustice or helping those in need.
When you’re confronted with circumstances that stir you into action ask yourself, “Is there something I can do to improve the situation?” “Can I volunteer, write a check, or contribute my efforts in other ways?” In other words, is there a way you can do your part?
As you can see, my version of accepting what is has nothing to do with complacency.
The problem is, many people who want to make a difference in the world suffer because they are unable to quiet their minds after they’ve done their part. Accepting what is means aligning your actions with your values. And once you’ve taken action, you let go of the outcome.
When you continue to worry and set up expectations for a certain outcome that must happen, you are not accepting what is. As a result, you’ll suffer. The mental thoughts will stress you out, create anxiety, and can even make you physically sick.
So How Do You Accept What Is and Act in a Way that Aligns with Your Convictions?
Let’s take the example of professionals who deal with high-stress situations everyday. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, law enforcement, and social workers often experience harrowing situations on a regular basis. These professions are notorious for burn out that often results in high worker turnover.
But many professionals that are able to maintain their careers over the long-term have learned a powerful skill. They show up to work. They do their jobs. They take care of those who need help.
Once they’re done for the day, however, they flip the mental switch, so to speak, and put work behind them. This “out of sight, out of mind” approach is what allows them to maintain their careers helping others while maintaining peace of mind.
Learn to Love Cockroaches
There’s a story of a monk who was imprisoned for his religious beliefs. He was a peaceful man and never harmed a soul. Yet he was put into jail along with men who had committed terrible crimes. After years in prison, he was finally released.
When asked about his experience, rather than harbor resentment and anger about his unfair incarceration, he said, “Spending so much time alone deepened my meditation practice. I learned to appreciate the beauty in everything—including the cockroaches that would visit me in my cell everyday.”
So the next time you or someone you care about is confronted with a difficult situation, avoid the conventional wisdom that says, “Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people!”
Rather, accept that bad (and good) things happen to everyone. Do your part to alleviate suffering, and then accept what is. No matter how adverse the experience we are having, life always presents us with something beautiful to appreciate, embrace, and enjoy.