Changing Poison Into Medicine

How can we triumph over even the worst tragedy?

Posted Sep 28, 2009

What's the worst problem you have right now? Have you lost your home? Your job? Are you worried you might? Have you watched your savings diminish before your eyes as I have mine? Or are you facing a terrible illness?

From the Buddhist perspective, all people are endowed with the innate ability to create value out of any situation, no matter how awful or tragic. Unlike the idea that every cloud has a silver lining—that something positive can always be found in everything negative—the principle of changing poison into medicine explains that we can transform even the most horrific tragedy into the very thing we need to become happier than we currently are.


We tend to label any event "bad" that makes us suffer and seems unsolvable, believing we can see at one glance with perfect clarity the entirety of our lives from beginning to end and know the final value of any event the moment it occurs. In believing ourselves to be endowed with this perfect vision, however, we fail to recognize two important things:

  1. The significance of any event changes depending on the circumstances surrounding it. A professional football player might judge a career ending injury to be unequivocally bad until the plane he otherwise would have taken with his teammates crashes on its way to a game.
  2. The significance of any event changes depending on what we decide to do next. Our greatest failure can, and often does, plant the seed for our greatest victory. One could argue that Barack Obama would never have become President of the United States had he not suffered a devastating loss in a House race against Bobbie Rush.


Typically, we try to solve our problems using strategies we think have the highest likelihood of success. If Solution A doesn't work, we try Solution B. And if Solution B fails, we turn to Solution C. And if Solution C fails then...we turn back to Solution A. Which almost certainly still doesn't work, leading us to try Solution B again, and so on. We continue to cycle through all the solutions we're willing to try and that we can think to try until learned helplessness ensues and depression sets in.

Many times, however, the true answer is Solution D. Solution D is often something we've either dismissed as unworkable or that literally hasn't ever occurred to us. But Solution D is the one thing that can enable us to achieve the victory for which we were hoping or a victory far greater than we even imagined.

How, then, do we identify Solution D? I do it by turning to my practice of Buddhism (in fact, according to the Buddhist view, chanting guarantees us we can change poison into medicine). But it's not easy. We might think we're near to finding Solution D if the solution we're contemplating seems too hard, if not impossible, to implement, risks something valuable we don't want to lose, or requires more courage than we think we have. But a given solution may exhibit all of those characteristics and still not be Solution D. Sometimes Solution D isn't hard, risky, or scary, but just doesn't yet exist as a possibility at the time the problem first presents itself. Or sometimes Solution D may not mean changing our outward circumstances at all.


But how can we claim we've changed poison into medicine if our outward circumstances don't change?

The answer involves recognizing that getting what we want isn't the only way to achieve victory. Not to diminish in any way the seriousness of some of the problems we face, but often what we want isn't what's actually best for us, or is literally impossible to achieve (bringing back a loved one from the dead, for example).

This is not to say that changing poison into medicine means rationalizing failure or accepting a consolation prize. It means true victory often comes to us in an unexpected form.


But what other outcome besides the one we want could enable us to become happier than we were before the poison entered our lives? Achieving another favorable result we hadn't foreseen? Possibly. But favorable circumstances can't create lasting happiness because favorable circumstances are always temporary.

We could, however, claim genuine victory if in trying to change our outward circumstances instead we gain wisdom. Wisdom does creates lasting happiness because, unlike favorable circumstances, it can't ever be taken from us.

What's required, then, for us to attain wisdom? From the Buddhist perspective, we gain wisdom by freeing ourselves from delusion. But we only relinquish our delusions when the pain that comes from continuing to believe them exceeds the pain of letting them go—and that only happens when circumstances stir them up. If we never suffered the pain of a break up, for example, we'd never have the opportunity to discover we don't need anyone's love but our own to be happy. If we'd never lost our job, we'd never have had the opportunity to confront the truth that we hated it and stayed in it only out of fear. So, in fact, from the Buddhist perspective difficult circumstances are necessary for us to become happy. Difficult circumstances are actually our good friends. A famous Buddhist quotation states: "When obstacle arise, the wise rejoice while the foolish retreat."


Some struggles, however, take years or even decades to win (one of the titles bestowed upon the Buddha was "He Who Can Forbear"). But as long as we refuse to give in to despair and firmly resolve to take concrete action until we either win or die, victory is always possible. And as we take that action, whatever it may be, we'd do well to remember Paul Newman's example (shown here) as he faced a much larger George Kennedy in the boxing scene from the movie Cool Hand Luke. No matter how many times you get knocked down, always get up!

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

More Posts