Life always seems to provide us with difficult situations and unexpected challenges that test us to the very core of our beings. The Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr can be helpful at those times:
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.
If a situation cannot be changed we may have to accept it as part of the ever-changing and unstable human condition, at least until such time when we can actually do something about it. Part of accepting the situation is acknowledging honestly our feelings of uncertainty, doubt, sorrow, disappointment, heartache, and frustration. Denying our emotions never works, nor does fighting them. The other part of accepting the situation involves observing our thoughts and emotions when they arise, for by observing them objectively we begin to detach ourselves from them. Acknowledging and impartially observing our thoughts and emotions allows us to feel the divine presence within and create some quiet inner space where our compulsive thinking and worry cease to operate. From a quiet place of observation and inner serenity we are less likely to become overwhelmed by emotions and negative thoughts, allowing us to better deal with the situations at hand. The challenges of life offer us the opportunity to transform ourselves into people of greater depth and spirituality. Just beyond our thoughts and emotions our divine essence is waiting for us to realize our true nature in the present moment—whatever the present moment brings.
How easily we convince ourselves that worrying is a sign that we care and are actually doing something when in reality we’re doing nothing but wasting energy. Worry is a mind game we play that involves mentally obsessing over an unhappy or uncertain future that hasn’t yet happened. This game of incessant thinking and projecting into a future that has yet to unfold distracts us from living fully and consciously in the present moment. Better we use the energy that worry expends to do something positive, helpful, or practical—now. Reliving over and over again the pain and injustices of the past is another mind game that distracts us from living fully at this moment. Better we use the past to inform us of how to live more wisely and fully in the present.
Anger at people, an institution, or circumstances—whether justified or not—will not result in anything positive. Anger is destructive and unhealthy, emanates from emotional pain, and renders us unable to look at things with the necessary perspective. Fighting anger only feeds it and makes it stronger, which is exactly what it wants! Impartially observing anger, however, draws energy away from it, allowing the misused energy to be transformed into awareness, presence, and the power to make useful changes. Worry, regret, and anger can be turned into spiritual energy by seeing them for what they are—mind games that distract us from our divine nature.
No matter how tragic an event in our lives is, it can be used for spiritual transformation and good, if we choose to do so. We may be disappointed, feel a deep sadness or regret, or even feel devastated because of certain circumstances in our lives, but these feelings can be the very things that we need to motivate us to become people of greater depth, empathy, and consciousness. Even the tragic loss of loved ones with all of its terrible pain and bereavement can ultimately be redemptive if it moves us to honor them by becoming better people and living with more spiritual depth, compassionate purpose, and gratitude. Disappointment and sadness can help us see that this life never brings true or lasting happiness. If we learn to view our disappointment from a more cosmic perspective even a bit of comforting humor can enter into our consciousness. Someone once said that the difference between cosmic and comic is simply the letter ‘S’.
Heartache can be debilitating and make us self-absorbed, hard, and inflexible, driving us to build impenetrable emotional fortresses to keep pain and sorrow at bay. But these fortresses never work or hold for very long. It is through accepting and then observing our heartache that we begin to detach from it and create some space to gain perspective and discover our true nature. Heartache can teach us to embrace life with all of its flaws, be more vulnerable and flexible with others, be grateful for what we have, and treasure the gift of the present moment. We don’t need to relive the past over and over again because what has happened IS in the past. But we can learn from the past, and use the knowledge to help us live more fully and wisely in the present. Heartache is part of the experience of living that can deepen our compassion and empathy for others. Without heartache we cannot begin to understand the pain that others experience, much artistic expression would have never found a voice, and many spiritual transformations would not have taken place.
In his wonderful book, Care of the Soul, Thomas More elegantly and passionately writes: “Care of the soul sees another reality all together. It appreciates the mystery of human suffering and does not offer the illusion of a problem-free life. It sees every fall into ignorance and confusion as an opportunity to discover that the beast residing at the center of the labyrinth is also an angel.” In other words every challenging situation in life is a double-edged sword, containing within it the power to destroy or redeem. It is always our choice to embrace the beast or the angel. We can embrace the beast and lash out angrily against ourselves and the people and situations that cause us pain and sorrow, or we can accept our sorrow and heartache and embrace the angel of redemption and soar above the dark labyrinth by living in the present moment with joy and gratitude.