Imagine the scenario: it’s a warm evening with a light breeze. You’re standing on the beach watching the waves crash, listening to the roar of the ocean with the stars overhead. I would assume you’re feeling relaxed and calm, transported away from the worries of the world.
A client recently described finding himself in the following situation, not one too uncommon from something all of us can relate to. He is driving along the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn at 10pm, when suddenly traffic comes to a standstill. He manages to pull over by the shoulder alongside Plum Beach, a beautiful expanse of sand where the Atlantic Ocean meets Jamaica Bay. He is running on empty; his cell phone has 5% battery. As he describes his evening, I’m thinking about all those evening I drove past that exact spot and how I have never stopped to take in the view. We pay hundreds of dollars to fly to far off places to sit on beautiful beaches and take in such sights, and yet I speed by nightly at 10mph over the speed limit.
I’m about the suggest how lucky he is, when he says that as he stood on the beach, with hundreds of idling cars behind him, his anxiety turns to anger. He questions why he took this route in the first place; he projects how his wife is probably reminding herself how irresponsible he is, and he envisions the fight they will have when he gets home 4-5 hours late. 10 minutes later, traffic is moving at a rapid clip. After processing his feelings with him, I reflect on the initial thoughts that had flashed in my head. I explain that he and I took the same situation, and allowed it to affect us in radically different ways. In fact, his thoughts increased the tension and anxiety he was already experiencing, leading to a progressive cycle of negative thoughts, ending hours later.
Inevitably, we encounter moments throughout our days that are beyond our control. We will get stuck in traffic at the worst moments; planes will be delayed when we desperately need to make that layover; we’ll even find that the milk is sour right after pouring it into our cereal. The question is only how we react and respond to these uncertain certainties in life. In Alcoholics Anonymous there’s a common belief that for true recovery, we need to learn to “live life on life’s terms.” This means accepting our limits in this uncertain world. However, I think that this only allows us to survive life. For those interested in thriving in life, we need to take it a step further.
Watching the different recovering addicts pass through my office, I have found that those who not only live on life’s terms but also embrace them can bask in true serenity. They can actually relish in those moments when we feel blindsided. How do they do that, you may ask? They do so by truly understanding their limitations. In those moments we most dread, when circumstances are beyond our control, they appreciate what cannot be changed. Our greatest strength is when we can truly recognize this fundamental fact. It can change our lives and deeply alter our relationships.