For reasons we can't always predict, sometimes life throws curveball after curveball. It's human nature to crave certainty, and yet life is anything but. People run into career ruts. People lose jobs. Marriages crumble. Accidents happen. Savings get depleted. Healthy people get sick.
If we're lucky, we're thrown one curveball at a time. But that's seldom the case, and in fact, sometimes in our despair over one unlucky turn, we wind up creating others. Like an unstoppable chain reaction. We feel helpless over our friend's cancer diagnosis so we pick a fight with our husband about the heap of clothes on the closet floor. Words escalate and before the evening ends we threaten to end our 10-year relationship. Just like that every grievance from the past decade pours out. Now we have two big worries: our friend's health and our marriage.
Stress about money can also cause us to act in wildly incongruous ways. We have to replace the roof in our house but darn it, we don't care that our credit cards have been pushed to the max. We're itching for an exotic vacation so we rationalize and justify, and for a few fleeting weeks we're on a high until the reality of our debt seeps in and sends us into panic mode.
This much is true: the older we are, the more imperfect life becomes. Which is exactly why we must learn to embrace life's unexpected turns with grace.
"The real challenge is about being present to the moment," says David Sanders, a psychologist and Director of Denver's Kabbalah Experience. "This means sitting with whatever feelings arise without pushing them away prematurely. Being present can still mean that we are dealing with the past or are concerned about the future."
Here are four ways to feel present and as peaceful as possible when life feels hard.
Cultivate Empathy. Why is it easier to show empathy for others and far harder to turn that lens inward? Too many of us carry a map of self-criticism that prevents us from extending the same kind of compassion we might to a friend. Avoid falling prey to the blame and shame game the next time something goes awry. Picture your best friend in this same situation. What encouragement would you offer? Listen to those words and heed them. Nourish yourself the way you would your dearest friend.
Acknowledge and Be with What Has Happened. There's real grace in simply acknowledging an event without escalating what it means. Dr. Sanders often counsels and teaches this perspective when one contemplates loss. "But don't rush it," he warns. "There is no official statute of limitations on grief." That is what it means to be present "to the moment" while one is still dealing with a loss from the past.
Slow Down. It's human nature to feel vulnerable when bad things happen. We're so uncomfortable sitting in the gray uncertainty of life that we swing into fast and furious mode without stopping to quiet our minds. That's a sure recipe for trouble. We badly cut our finger chopping vegetables for dinner. We multitask while driving and crash into a pole. We overschedule meetings and wind up missing them. Slow down! Go find a spot on the floor to stretch out. Put your hands on your belly, take a deep breath and let your abdomen fill with air before releasing slowly. Repeat this a few times and watch how your body calms. Be this way -- mindful and aware -- when you greet the world again, problems and all.
Appreciate Life's Dualities. Understand that life will always be full of dualities. Which means that more often than not joy and sorrow co-mingle. Picture a wedding day after the groom's father has died. Or Christmas Day, a time when tradition and culture brainwash us to be happy, and yet we're sad about the family break-up. Sanders calls this our ability to "hold opposites." In all these scenarios and far less dramatic ones, we must learn to "hold" good and bad at the same time -- like a seesaw that has to be equally weighted. Both sides are important in the scale of life.
"For me, every hour is grace," wrote Elie Wiesel, author, Holocaust survivor, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now that's an idea worth spreading.
This article originally appeared on Reimagine Me, an online magazine for those who have been touched by cancer, and an education resource that teaches a powerful set of skills to take your life back from cancer.