Reasons and Lessons

“In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back of the book.”

Charlie Brown of the comic strip Peanuts by Charles Shultz

“It’s so unfair,” she cried. “It’s just so unfair.”

I wanted to say that life isn’t always fair, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

“I want to know why,” she said. “I want someone to please tell me why.”

Her son had been diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis was poor. At the time of diagnosis, the cancer was already at stage three – one step away from terminal. As to the why, I told her I didn’t know why. Genetics, diet, attitude – all of the above or none of the above.

Over the years, I have lost friends and family to cancer (and other tragic events) and spent many nights lying awake frantically searching for reasons – for the whys. If I relinquished my grip on logical and rational thought, I could come up with many causes, each more fanciful or outlandish than the one before it. None of the whys provided any lasting solace.

Some people claim everything happens for a reason. Though part of me likes that whimsical notion, another part of me believes things sometimes happen because they happen. Indeed, there’s a time to search for reasons. There is value in asking “why” about things that are within our control. Why did something fail? Why did a plane fall out of the sky? Why do I seem stuck in a recurring pattern of behaviour? Uncovering the “whys” can lead us to create strategies that help prevent further unwanted recurrences. But what of those events that seemingly defy reason: random, unpredictable and out of our control – the ones that keep us up at night?

Sometimes we need to relinquish our need to know the reasons (the whys) and instead look for the lessons experience can provide. After two close friends’ sudden death a few years ago, I decided to stop looking for reasons and begin looking for life lessons. While knowing the medical reasons for the passing of two friends might provide me with some degree of insight into cause and effect, discerning the lessons that come from losing someone close would certainly provide me with greater self-awareness and a deeper appreciation of the unpredictable nature of life. The lesson here was to appreciate every moment with the people you love.

Viktor Frankl – Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor – dedicated an entire volume to the topic, aptly titled Man’s Search for Meaning. To me, Frankl’s personal Holocaust account is filled with life lessons – page after page of astounding insights.  

Wrote Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” A potent life lesson drawn by Frankl while enduring the most horrific of circumstances imaginable: a Jewish prisoner in the most feared death camp, Auschwitz. Frankl relinquished his need to understand the reasons (the whys) and instead looked for the lessons the experience could provide. In captivity, his treatment was beyond his control, so there was no use dwelling upon the reasons for it. Certainly, a historian or social scientist might want to study the reasons so as to prevent another Holocaust, but for Frankl the reasons why were irrelevant.

“Between stimulus and response” wrote Frankl, “there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

There’s a question I like to ask when it comes to my search for meaning: what can I take from this experience that will help me to become a more grounded, empowered and heart-centred person? It’s a simple yet powerful shift in perspective that has brought me both insight and clarity. I am metaphorically sifting through my experiences looking for the positive aspects. I am looking specifically for knowledge blocks for self-esteem building. I am convinced that it’s this searching for life lessons (meaning) that makes us able to transcend our conditions.

We may not always be able to discern the reasons why things happen to us and others. Sometimes the reasons are apparent and others time impossible to decipher and perhaps that’s as it should be. Even though we may never settle on a reason, we can generally find life lessons contained within.

As for the lady in question, her son lost his battle with cancer. Though understandably devastated, she eventually turned away from asking why and began to look for the lessons, and she began to find them. In time, she became an advocate for cancer research and a counsellor/mentor to individuals and families moving through similar experiences.

“There are no mistakes or failures,” wrote Denis Waitley, a founding member of the National Council for Self-Esteem. “There are only (life) lessons.”

The reality is that no matter how smart we may be, there will always be certain things we are just never going to figure out. Sometimes we must admit that we don’t know and that’s OK. By recognizing and ultimately accepting the unpredictable and indecipherable nature of life, we can shift our analysis and critical thinking into another direction. We can start looking today for the lessons. This opens the mind up to the possibilities for a better today and tomorrow.

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