12/18/2012 12:02 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

When Hardship Hits: Ask Not, 'Why Me ?!' Ask, 'Why Not Me?!'

"The sooner you say 'Yes, it happened, and there's nothing I can do about it,' the sooner you can get on with your own life."
-- E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

We all accept, in principal, that life is hard and that "sh*t happens." We just don't want it to happen to us. When it does, we protest indignantly, "Why me?!" We harbor an unexamined presumption that misfortune should somehow bypass us. We should be encased in our own individualized iron domes to deflect incoming life assaults.

But why the heck not us? We all agree, in the abstract, that a life devoid of struggle is a life devoid of growth. An old Arabian proverb states: "All sunshine makes the desert." Think of the people you respect and admire the most in your life: Haven't they had tough times and life blows to overcome?

The question is not how to avoid life assaults but how to receive them when they hit. The answer lies in how we choose to think about these hardships, because how we think about life events determines how we feel about them, which, in turn, determines how adaptively we cope with them. Only in this way can we control the impact of life's uncontrollable assaults. Can we accept life's upheavals and soldier through them (which is not to say to masochistically welcome them!), or must we expend precious energies protesting them as unfair?

One of my dear friends, a source of constant inspiration to me, suffered three profound losses in a single year: her son who was in a grisly factory accident, her beloved dog who was hit by a car, and her husband who dropped dead of a heart attack. She was remarkably courageous in the way she accepted these losses. She was, of course, beset by shocked grief at first, but then proceeded to mourn and honor their lost lives without bitter protest. With gratitude, she spoke of the happiness they each brought into her life; with tender amusement, she recalled their idiosyncrasies. And with robust open-heartedness, she goes on growing and living her life.

In contrast, a patient whom I'll call "Ellen," was pathologically locked for two years in mourning the death of her husband. Daily, she railed against God for robbing her of his companionship. She grew embittered and calcified, refusing to grow into the hole he left behind by doing for herself what her husband had always done, e.g., arranging their social life, paying bills, servicing the car. She had seized up like a rusted hinge, immovable in her refusal to accept and adapt to her life's upheaval. What emerged was that even more powerful than her grief in losing her husband was her fear of having to learn self-reliance after decades of living life as a "we" instead of a "me." Her pathological mourning and helplessness kept other family members fulfilling the role vacated by her husband -- but at the cost of her own growth and her family's equanimity.

Paradoxically, there is strength and wisdom in submitting to harsh realities. The fact is, we are more productive when we direct all our energies to embracing rather than resisting "what is." Why? Because when we protest, we squander precious energy needed for coping, like driving with one foot on the brake. When we relax, release and open fully to the realities confronting us, we can be far more creatively resourceful than when we recoil from "what is" with clenched fearfulness. (See my previous post on this topic.)

We can choose to think flexibly and adaptively, rather than rigidly and maladaptively, by redefining painful life blows as opportunities to evolve. Suffering is what grows the soul. Suffering is the "rock-tumbler" of life, within which the nuggets of our battered selves get polished into our highest and best selves.

"A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.
The gem cannot be polished without friction." -- Danish proverb

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