Life is full of curve balls. Some you sense are coming around the corner. Others hit you out of nowhere. There’s no time to duck or put plans in place. Instead it strikes you out of nowhere, knocks you to the ground and leaves your head spinning… wondering “What the heck?!”
A lot of people are feeling like that right now. Like their whole world has just been jolted off its axis with no warning and no playbook for how to respond.
You’ve likely already encountered a few curve balls. They are, after all, inevitable. But many people have never experienced anything remotely as destabilizing to their sense of security, safety and certainty as this. Particularly the younger among us who simply haven’t been alive long enough. You know, like anyone under seventy five.
Back in March (the longest March in history), a group of varsity athletes created a Facebook group to protest the decision to cancel their final athletic season. “We have the right to play,” one upset young man wrote, “and this is a violation of our basic freedom.” “This is just wrong,” protested another,“People can’t just do this.”
And yet people did. Not to ruin their lives, but to protect many others.
The reality is that the ‘assumptive world’ – a term used by psychologists to describe the mental maps we create about how the world should be – of many people has been squarely turned on its head by this pandemic. When our conviction that something that just ‘can’t happen’ actually does happen, it leaves us both mentally perplexed and emotionally ungrounded.
Little wonder so many people feel so anxious right now. Little wonder so many have fallen into fearcasting, conjuring up worst case scenarios and wrangling with a whole raft of fears about what their future may hold. All of which just stoke further stress.
Of course when the world as you knew it gets upended, it’s only natural to feel off kilter and focus on what is not as you’d like. But consider the person you would be today if everything you had ever wished for, planned for, or worked hard for, had turned out precisely as you wanted at the time.
If your parents had given you everything you’d ever asked for.
If your first crush had declared their undying love and never again left your side.
If you’d won lotto at 18 and never had to work those minimum wage jobs that taught you more about life and the value of money than any econ’ class.
The truth is that every curve ball – whether in the form of a disappointment or derailed plan, a setback or struggle – has provided you with a valuable lesson and unique opportunity for growth.
Likewise, if you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid all curve balls up until now – if you’ve won every competition and accomplished every goal… in record time – then consider that right now you are getting an invaluable masterclass in building resiliency skills beyond anything you could learn in a book or classroom.
Sure, it’s not fun. Some days may be incredibly hard going. But that doesn’t mean it’s not rich in opportunity for you to learn something new – about yourself, about life, and about the world – that you can benefit from long after this crisis is over.
In my late twenties I was in an armed robbery and had three consecutive miscarriages soon after. It was an upsetting time as my hopes and expectations collided head on with reality. Yet those events ultimately led to an experience of ‘post traumatic growth’ and shifted the trajectory of my life – personal and professional – in all good ways.
The same is true for you right now. View your problems, and this pandemic, through the ‘this shouldn’t happen to me’ lens and they’ll trigger enormous angst, stress, frustration, fear, and perhaps a solid dose of ‘woe-is-me’ self-pity. This is the lens that expects life to conform to your master plan, one that’s likely built on the privileged assumption that bad things don’t happen to good people (like your fine self), and that hard work should always pay off in short order.
Ahhh, if only.
A study by Yale psychologist Charles A. Morgan III of naval personnel that simulated being captured and interrogated by an enemy force found that those who embraced adversity as part and parcel of life were significantly less likely to exhibit symptoms that could develop into PTSD and were more likely to experience post traumatic growth. Likewise, research by Martin Seligman from University of Pennsylvania, found that it is how we interpret our setbacks (and not the setbacks themselves) – whether through the lens of self-pity and pessimism or through opportunity and optimism – that determines future our current wellbeing and future success.
Viewing life through the lens of “it’s not fair” sets you up for feeling perpetually stressed out, put out or peeved off. In doing so, it prevents you from learning from the experience and harnessing your full range of resources to improving it.
However there is another lens (and it’s not wearing Pollyanna’s rose glasses). This lens views life as though every adversity can holds the seed of equal or greater benefit if we look for it. Not immediately, no obviously…but ultimately. As Dr Ellen Langer from Harvard University shared in a lecture I attended, ‘even the gnarliest problems can be turned into a win if we are committed to making it so.’
This lens is grounded in faith and forged in optimism. It operates on the premise that everything works out in the end so if it hasn’t worked out yet, it’s not yet the end.
It knows that setbacks happen, but it’s what you do after the fact that matters far more.
It knows that sadness is a natural response to loss which should be embraced, fully honored, and not avoided.
Yet it also knows that while you’re not always responsible for your experiences in life, you are always responsible for your experience of life.
And last but not least, it knows that even when all hope seems futile there is always a reason to hold onto hope and that nothing is ever truly, wholly, a lost cause as it may first appear on the surface level. As I shared in my latest book You’ve Got This!, recounting the death of my youngest brother Peter after a long battle with mental illness, no matter how great our grief for what has been lost, there is always a gift that can be salvaged from what remains. Always.
So if your spirits have been flattened by the weight of this crisis, give yourself space to process how you’re feeling (practicing abundant self-compassion). Then commit to finding the gift that is hidden in your new reality (unwanted as it may be) and, to paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke, do not squander the hour of your pain.
Sure, our plans generally follow a straight path:
Study hard. Get good grades. Go to good college. Play varsity. Travel abroad. Get great job (immediately). Work hard, move up. Meet soul mate. Plan perfect wedding. Buy home, with pool. Raise ‘honor roll’ kids. Buy second home, boat… yada yada.
While our plans be linear, our lives are not. You may not relish life’s curve balls, its ‘plot twists’ and setbacks. But you’ll be happier when you embrace them as an inevitable part of your journey, trust your capacity to handle them and proactively seek out ways to turn them into a catalyst for some higher good.
Since leaving my parents small dairy farm at eighteen, my plans have unravelled countless times. In recent years, I’ve had more than my share of curve balls as my husband has been moved around the world by his employer dispersing our family over three continents. And more recently, with him falling ill to COVID-19 (you can view my CNN interview here) in the midst of adapting my own work and leadership programs to world turned virtual overnight.
But you know what? I would not be half the person I am today without those challenges. Likewise, while this pandemic has impacted our livelihoods and upended our lives, it doesn’t have to ruin them. In fact it could actually be introducing us to aspects of our own humanity on a whole new level and uncovering a new path that may, in the end, be far more deeply rewarding than the one we were on. After all, who says your plans were so brilliant anyway?
So if you do nothing else today, ask yourself, what would you do differently if you reframed this experience through another lens; one that viewed it as necessary for you to achieve what you’re truly capable of or become the full quota of the person you have it within you to be?
Embrace the curves. Trust yourself. Not only does life rarely unfold in the straight line you planned for, but its greatest opportunities often appear from the turns you didn’t see coming.
Founder of Global Courage, Margie Warrell is supporting organizations via virtual programs to lead through this crisis with more courage and resilience.
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