“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” –Charles Darwin
How we respond to change is not only essential to our survival, but paramount to our happiness. We humans are creatures of habit and routine. We like to know in advance what’s coming next, because the alternative, THE UNKNOWN (insert creepy music) is scary and unpredictable. We like our lives to go according to our carefully crafted plan. But, the thing is, things almost NEVER go according to plan: Meetings get changed. Flights get delayed. Kids get sick. Accidents happen. Expectations fall short. ALL. THE. TIME! And, basically, we have two responses to being broad-sided by this uncertainty: 1) Freak out and get mad/anxious/sad, or 2) Relax and go with the flow. Guess which one is more conducive to our happiness?
Disappointment is a normal, valid response to a change in plans, whether the change be small (a cancelled dinner date) or life-altering (no football scholarship due to a broken leg). It’s what we do with the disappointment that determines our overall life satisfaction. Do we become attached to our suffering, wallowing in self-pity at what was missed or lost, or do we acknowledge the disappointment then let it go, making room for the possibility of something new and/or better happening as a result of the change? There is a Taoist proverb I have always loved that goes something like this:
A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We shall see.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We shall see.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We shall see.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We shall see.”
Some months passed and a messenger from the king’s army came by the farm to check on the son, and upon seeing his improved condition, recruited him to come to the palace immediately to work the fields and stables, as the war had left a shortage of workers. The neighbors lamented “You will have no one to help you with the farm, what horrible luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We shall see.”
The king had a beautiful daughter who fell in love with the son. After the couple was married, the son’s father and mother were invited to move to the palace permanently. All the villagers exclaimed, “how wonderful! How fortunate!” To which the farmer replied,….
As the proverb suggests, unexpected circumstances are not always so easy to categorize as “good” or “bad”. I happen to truly believe that all things happen according to a higher plan, one that may not be immediately obvious to us at the time. I also believe that sometimes what we think we want doesn’t always pan out to be what we really need, and the Universe has an uncanny way of redirecting our paths for us. Did you not get into your first choice college? Maybe your future spouse and life-long friends are waiting for you at your back-up school. Maybe you’ll meet a professor there that changes the course of your life by sparking an interest in something you’ve never even considered before. Did a cherished long term relationship end? Maybe that person didn’t have your best interest in mind. Maybe your true soulmate is just waiting to be discovered. Did you get fired from your ho-hum job? Maybe this is the impetus needed to pursue your true passion or try something new. Sure, sometimes, just like the t-shirt says, unfortunate shit just happens. But, we don’t have to let it derail us. Allow yourself to feel the feelings: the hurt, the sadness, and disappointment, but don’t let them linger and consume you. Shake their hands, then let them go. And, most importantly, open the door for next opportunity that comes knocking.
I know it’s cliché, but life truly is what you make of it. You have a choice of how you respond to any given situation: hyperventilate from agitation and frustration at events beyond your control (and by the way, ALL events are beyond your control), or breath deeply and proceed with calm knowing that everything is going to work out just fine if you let it. Once you learn to relax your expectations and instead decide to go with the flow, finding joy and pleasure in the present moment, you take control of your own happiness. Relax. Go with the flow. Find your happy!