09/13/2012 08:01 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

How to Move On When There's No Place to Move to

I recently brought in my car for a routine checkup, and standing on the corner with a sign in her hand was a long-haired woman in thick lipstick, her face immobilized by her resentment. "This place lied to me and damaged my car," her sign ominously warned me as I pulled past her and into the service lane.

"They all do," I thought to myself as I turned over the keys to my car.

I wanted to walk over to her, gently take her sign and tell her just that. I wanted to remind her that life is full of wrongs that may never be made right. I wanted to say, "Let it go. It's over, move on. Your life is too important to live with this injustice another moment longer. It happened. It shouldn't have. But it did."

But I knew better. I knew she wasn't able to move on, not yet. Perhaps her car had indeed been damaged, and she was unable to afford further repairs. Perhaps she could no longer get to her job and had lost it. Perhaps she was taking three-hour bus rides each day, and on those long rides thinking about the car that she no longer had, her anger at the injustice only grew. Whatever her story, to spend her day standing there with her sign, she had to be overwhelmed.

I knew, in her mind, the damaged car was something she alone could not undo. It was seemingly insurmountable, a wrong with consequences she alone had to endure. Yet most everything that overwhelms us is surmountable. We really can move on from most of the events that knock us down. It is only our fear and our anger that fixes us in one place -- our damnable determination to make those who have wronged us, knowingly or not, undo the damage their actions have brought on. Our constant quest for personal justice in an unjust world filled with hypocrisies and cruelties is an exhausting one, as eternal and pointless as politics, warfare and hateful religions.

Yet sometimes there are events in our lives which truly cannot be surmounted. There is no righting the wrong, undoing the tragedy, restoring that which has been taken away. Yet even the insurmountable can be survived. But how? How to move on when there's no place to move to? How does someone driving off in their own car tell the woman standing on the street corner with her anger and her sign, move on?

We begin with ourselves. We begin by accepting that the source of nearly all that irritates, annoys, angers and enrages us is not the world itself and its random cruelties, but is instead the imperfections of other people. And we cannot control other people.

But we can control ourselves. More specifically, we can control our thoughts, which produce our emotional responses to the world and those who live in it. We can, when facing the insurmountable, accept first that either it is not as insurmountable as it feels, or it is insurmountable and cannot be undone. Either way, the next step is to take a step. Nothing more. Just one step toward survival.

Begin with deflating the rage and the fear by pushing out the recurring script that runs in our heads that tells us "Something is wrong." Whatever the thoughts that are running over and over, recreating the past, justifying our rage, empowering our anger with recurring stories we tell ourselves to explain what has happened in our lives that has brought us so much pain.

We push those thoughts out. And we replace them with something gentle, something peaceful, something beautiful. We find a thought, an image, a simple word, something that brings us a flicker of joy. Just that. A flicker, nothing more. And we embrace that thought or image or word that brings us joy with all the warmth and welcome we can muster. And then it will go, just like that. Like a child squirming to run from a hug and go play, out momentary thought will be gone. And in its place will come the recurring thoughts, the memories, the fears, that have held us in their tightening grip and brought us to this place of pain.

And then we push out the thoughts once again. By just doing that simple step, again and again, we begin to move on. We create new normals in our lives, new ways of living in a world gone wrong, and in time we begin to make room in our hearts and minds for new explanations, new thoughts, and new joys.

By learning to control our thoughts, we slowly, ever so slowly learn to control our emotions -- without sacrificing our capacity to feel. As we control our emotions, we ever so slowly alter our perceptions. The world remains unchanged, but by changing the thoughts that define our worlds, we begin to transform the worlds in which we live.

We may never regain what we've lost in the world, whether that be someone we loved who has died, health that can only worsen, a car we can never afford to replace. Whatever our losses, if they can be replaced, they will be. If they cannot be replaced, we can at the very least replace the pain, however imperceptibly, with moments of laughter, of gratitude, of joy. Just small moments that we can -- no matter how immobilized we are with grief or rage or worry -- conjure in an instant with our infinite imaginations. By imagining ourselves moving onward, our thoughts will surely take us where our hearts so desperately must go.

For more by Janice Harper, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.