Trials of Life
Facing the Unplanned and Unpredictable
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 2018
We can't expect a life of ease. The world is unpredictable. Our happiness and success depends on resilience to the challenges of living.
Human by heredity, troubled and challenged by the nature of existence, we are not immune to trials. A belief that we have immunity from the sour and discomforting emotions, clinging to an entitlement of ease triggers resentment to the reality of a rich and unpredictable life. The unavoidable obstacles of our existence will collide with our plans, momentarily knocking us out of balance.
The trials of life, no matter how ravenous, are not always consequences of terrible action, punishing for misdeeds of youth. Sometimes we do stupid things and suffer; other times other people do stupid things and we suffer. The meaning we give to these troublesome events, and the learning we extract becomes the foundation of our futures. We suffer and become resentful and frightened or, preferably, we suffer and become resourceful and wise.
"And it turns out that resilience really is like a muscle – you can have a propensity for it, and can make it stronger through practice and training."
We live in the chaotic fog of complexity. Billions of people, countless living creatures, and universal laws work together to form each moment. Our universe supports life, even provides necessary ingredients for flourishing; but the individual who wants to capitalize on opportunities must adapt to a challenging and fierce environment, facing obstacles with resilience, incorporating wisdom, and a willingness to draw support and guidance from others.
"We live in the chaotic fog of complexity."
Life throws much unpleasantness at us. We lose those we care about, we are let down by those we trust, we suffer the ravages of disease and are victimized by carelessness and evilness. Some circumstances are chronic and consistent, like racism, while other are severe but isolated, such as debilitating accident (Gordon, 1995). Each life trial demands unplanned attention, drawing upon our limited resources, and courageous willingness to face the unexpected, stand back up, and make use of troublesome circumstances to enhance our lives.
Difficulties swoop down unexpected, disrupting plans, and creating chaos. Our internal composure is momentarily disorganized; spun around into dizziness, we ask, “why is this happening to me?” We are meaning making machines (see Meaning Making Machines). We need to identify a cause to draw appropriate lessons, extracting sufficient information to avoid repeats of the same agony. We are hungry to blame, pointing to others for their cruelty or ourselves for our stupidity.
"Becoming more resilient not only helps you get through difficult circumstances, it also empowers you to grow and even improve your life along the way."
American Psychological Association
Often reflection following disappointment is effective, unveiling prominent factors that can be avoided in the future, but meaning isn’t always accessible. Connections of cause and effect can be lost in the morass of complexity, infinitely beyond our intellectual reach. These events provoke a heavy burden. The event is unfair, experiencing the unfortunate brunt of the unpredictableness of life. We are rightfully angry. We must gracefully bare these burdens without wrongfully directing anger at innocent others, or our imperfect selves. Turning anger inward only destroys competence, inviting the life limiting demons of helplessness and surrender.
We can, however, direct the anger at the situation teaches Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981):
But being angry at the situation, recognizing it as something rotten, unfair, and totally undeserved, shouting about it, denouncing it, crying over it, permits us to discharge the anger which is a part of being hurt, without making it harder for us to be helped.
Without identifiable cause, we still must respond effectively to protect and build confidence. Instead of dwelling on the unknowable, we must change the question from, “why did this happen?” to “now that this happened, what do I do?” We give the trial meaning, redeeming the event from senselessness by our response rather than isolating a cause. We infuse the moment with meaning, retaining the locus of control over our destiny, even though we were blindsided by the unpleasantness of misfortune.
The ability to respond effectively to the punishing blows of unfairness is resilience. We absorb the impact but are not devastated. We gather the pieces of our broken life; but instead of crumble in despair, we evolve in wisdom and confidence. The trial becomes an affirmation of life. We capitalize on the loss of opportunity through gains in wisdom.
Johanne Chelsey eloquently describes this growth response to her personal confrontations with injustices, “with each battle, we learn better how to choose our strategies.” Hurtful lessons became wise instructors for Johanne when she paused and listened. Chelsey explained, “the experiences became a prayer; it was a time for reflection, for increasing humility and introspection” (2005).
Daniel Goleman proposes that happiness thrives with resilience (2007). We develop resilience by accepting life with its variety of inconveniences. We maintain the locus of control by giving meaning to the meaningless, extracting wisdom from the unknowable, learning more about ourselves, and the nature of humanity. In those moments, where the trial overwhelms, instead of hiding in powerlessness, we must humble ourselves, seeking strength from supportive others.
“The fates have given mankind a patient soul.” Homer
Trials teach lessons of compassion, love and patience. Through trial we have opportunities to gain patience and skill. By skirting difficulties, we create shallowness of character and narrowness of vision, blocking insight into the hurts and challenges of others. Our strength to survive demands we let go of entitlements of ease. The life well lived struggles through trials finding new avenues of growth, while developing greater empathy towards others in their challenges. The trials of life have the power to bring abounding love, inner peace and a healing presence, giving richness and purpose to our mundane existence.
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Chesley, J. (2005). Overcoming Injustice: A Tradition of Resilience. Advancing Women in Leadership, 18. Retrieved from Questia.
Goleman, D. (2007). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam. Kindle Edition
Gordon, K. (1995). Self-Concept and Motivational Patterns of Resilient African American High School Students. Journal of Black Psychology, 21(3), 239-255. Read on DeepDyve.
Kushner, G (1981) When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Anchor Books