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The Choice You Have To Make When Things Go Horribly Wrong

07/29/2014 10:49 am ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015
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Accidents are never pleasant, but if you choose to see meaning in them, they can be useful. Martha Beck explains why every mishap is a chance to expand your outlook.

The moment I heard that my friend Annette had been in a serious car crash, I rushed to see her. She seemed strangely peaceful, considering what had just happened. Another car had run a red light and slammed into Annette's SUV at 70 miles per hour, flipping it. Her crushed vehicle rolled, bounced and came to rest upside down. No one could believe she'd walked away from the accident.

Unless -- cue eerie music -- it wasn't an accident. We've all heard the credo "There are no accidents." Some people believe that every mischance, from a stubbed toe to an earthquake, is predestined, "manifested," or both. Other people see pretty much everything, including our very existence, as random and meaningless. I like to split the difference: Are some events random? I think so. But meaningless? Heck no.

The human mind is a meaning-making machine. Choosing to look for import in everything helps us weather adversity. As neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, MD, PhD, wrote, to live happily, humans don't require the absence of suffering, but "the call of a potential meaning." Seeing accidents as significant may or may not align us with Absolute Truth -- there's no way we can know. But it can definitely help us trade nihilist despair for courage, comfort and wisdom. If you're into that sort of thing.

So Are There Accidents or Not?

The driver who demolished Annette's car snarfed up a snootload of crystal meth and set off on a joyride. For him the crash wasn't accidental; it was more of a sure thing. Annette, on the other hand, followed all traffic laws and fastened her seat belt. She was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Accepting that such things can happen to anyone is unnerving. It would be comforting to think that something Annette did (something we can avoid) "attracted" the accident. Maybe she offended God, some might say, or had negative thoughts. Control your thoughts, the theory goes, and only good things will happen to you.

I can't prove that the "thoughts create accidents" hypothesis is incorrect. I also don't believe that European Jews "manifested" the Holocaust. Nor do I think calamities are sent by a peevish God. There are raging pessimists who escape tsunamis and murderers who thrive while babies starve. (I've heard people argue, "You don't know what sins those babies committed in their previous lives." If you talk this way, someone will punch you, and it will not be an accident.)

My point is, shit happens. Randomly. But here's an amazing human capacity: We can use virtually any experience as a catalyst for hopelessness or growth. We can see the world as if everything is meaningless or as if everything is meaningful. Each of these positions is equally untestable. So we get to choose.

Deciding to Make an Accident Not an Accident

The phrase felix culpa, Latin for "fortunate fault," means a bad-luck event that ends up being positive. I've watched hundreds of clients turn all sorts of disasters -- getting cancer, losing a loved one, going bankrupt -- into felix culpae. Many came to say their "bad luck" helped them find strength and resilience they didn't know they had. They seemed genuinely joyful, transformed in real, measurable ways by terrible mischances. But this positive outcome never happens by accident. Turning a culpa into something felix is a deliberate act of focused attention.

For example, after her accident, Annette was both deeply shaken and startlingly serene. This wasn't Pollyannaish revisionist history -- it was a point of view that encompassed both good and bad, anger and awe. "I'm mad as hell at the guy who hit me," she said, "but more than that, I'm shocked by how peaceful I felt. I thought I would die, but I wasn't afraid. Watching my windshield shatter, I was amazed by how beautiful it was." She also felt deeply touched by the kindness of onlookers who came to help. The peace and compassion she felt were stronger, and lasted longer, than her fear and rage.

I asked Annette to walk through an exercise I sometimes use to help clients make sense of accidents. I invite you to use it, too.

So You've Been in an Accident

First, write a description of a mishap that's affected your life -- a broken ankle, a bounced check, whatever. Annette wrote: "I was crossing an intersection when a driver, high on meth, ran a red light and hit me at 70 miles per hour. My car rolled three times and stopped with me hanging upside down. I was able to call my husband, and help came right away."

Once you've got a description, make a list of all its parts. For example, Annette's might include: "(1) Intersection. (2) Meth addict. (3) Red light. (4) 70 miles per hour." And so on.

Now comes the tricky part: Pretend you are each component of the accident. Then, still in character, begin talking about yourself. Don't think too much about it, just start riffing.

For example, I had Annette consider the first item on her list -- intersection -- and speak as if she were the place itself, saying whatever came to mind. It took a minute to get the hang of it, but eventually she said: "I'm a crossroads, a place where Annette can make an important choice." Annette didn't plan to say this. It just popped out when she allowed herself to imagine being the intersection. Weird, huh? But cool.

As you pretend to be the first item on your list, write down anything interesting that comes into your head, even if it doesn't make sense. Then move on to the next item. When Annette pretended to be the other driver, she said: "I'm a speeding driver, high on meth. I'm the insanity of humans and of the world. I'm here to teach Annette not to be afraid because fear is useless."

Continue free-associating with each element of the accident until you've gone through your whole list. Then read your description again with the meaning you've created through the free association. In Annette's case, the story of her accident turned out to be a pivotal moment when she could choose to release her fear of death and go on with greater serenity.

Years later, the calm that emerged from that analysis still hasn't faded. Ever since that felix culpa, Annette has been clearer, wiser, kinder and less afraid of both death and life. Actively choosing to look for meaning in her accident left her happier and more vibrant; seeing it as meaningless would have caused her to contract in terror.

After Meaning Come Miracles

The interesting thing about treating accidents this way is that once you've begun habitually meaning-making, you may well begin to notice positive "accidents," happy coincidences that seem beyond chance. The very process of seeking meaning brings these little miracles to your attention. Perhaps it even causes them—I don't know. But I've seen it happen to many people.

For example, after Lori lost her father, a stranger approached her on the street and said, "Your father sends you his love." On a ski trip, Jennifer felt compelled to begin wearing a helmet on the very day she later hit a tree headfirst on the slopes (thanks to the helmet, she was fine).

I got an inside look at this process when my son (conceived accidentally) was diagnosed with Down syndrome. When I chose to see this as meaningful, I had comforting dreams that came true, offers of help from people who barely knew me and the persistent feeling that some unseen force was protecting and soothing me. Were these delusions? Maybe. Coincidences? Could be. Miracles? You decide.

After Annette and I analyzed her accident, when her mind was in meaning-making mode, she recalled something strange. "I remember gripping the steering wheel very tightly with both hands just as I got hit. Then everything was absolute chaos. But when the car finally stopped and I was hanging there upside down, my cell phone was in my hand. How in the world did it get there?"

"Hmm," I said. "Divine intervention?"

"Well, maybe," said Annette, "considering that the driver's first name was Jesús."

Yes, it's true. Annette can accurately describe her accident by saying either "I was hit by a meth head who totaled my car" or "I came to a crossroads where I met Jesús and lost my fear of death." Luck was definitely involved, but Annette gets to determine whether that luck was bad or good.

We all have the same freedom to find and focus on the meaningful parts of our own misfortunes. Every one of us encounters random events, but we also possess a universal ability to create meaning out of suffering. We can turn a curse into a blessing, tragedy into heroism, loss into gain. Lucky us.

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