Some years ago, a young woman was out walking when she was brutally attacked by a man with an axe and killed. A short time after this tragic event, her parents were being interviewed for a news item when they surprised the interviewer by volunteering that they had chosen to forgive their daughter’s attacker.
When I saw the interview, and given the enormity of the crime, I could hardly credit anyone considering, let alone choosing, forgiveness – and yet they had. It was said simply and deliberately and the action clearly came from a place of inner strength.
The interview reinforced my notion that how I view the world directly influences how I experience it. That what I ‘experience’ (my feelings and emotions) drives my subsequent actions which, in turn, leads to my next ‘experience’ – each step a part of a ‘Self-fulfilling cycle’. Driven by what I believe to be true about how the world operates, the cycle is rather like a library of millions of little recordings in my head, each waiting to be played in response to situations that I encounter.
That tragic event also drew my attention (once again!) to the unpredictability of everyday life. On a daily basis, I am confronted by events that are unexpected in their nature, size and timing, hence the saying ‘Life is what happens while we plan our future’. Many of these events are hugely unpleasant with things happening to people whom I believe do not deserve them (and the other way around). I also see how brutal life is for millions of people around the world – wars, disease, crime, famine, earthquakes, floods, and so on. In short, I get drawn into pondering what life is all about: ‘Is there some “Universal purpose” and so forth.
It could be argued that such a gloomy portrayal of the state of the world only leads to a point of quiet despair or disengagement with life, however, I think that a thoughtful ‘pondering’ usually leads to a fork in the existential road, one at which I can choose to disengage with life or choose to deliberately engage with it. Choosing to engage with life, notwithstanding the many unpleasant things that go on, stimulates me to step back, take stock of what is happening around me (factually rather than judgementally) and shed or modify those of my beliefs that lead to my unhelpful experiences.
Seeing that it is impossible to plan with certainty (even though I may unthinkingly imagine that I can) and that I can never be fully in control of the journey, it is also likely that I will forever be surprised by the next turn of events! However, all is not lost and there is something that I can do to deal with whatever fortune offers next and hopefully – I say ‘hopefully’ because I won’t know until the test comes – my preparations will provide some stability when plans and actions are thrown aside by the whims of fortune.
That ‘something’ is preparing myself mentally by working on my beliefs (views) about how the world operates and then, from this foundation, articulating a considered set of principles upon which to base my operating style. Then I can develop plans to contribute to what life has to offer.
One of the benefits of embracing the unknown and acknowledging that much of what happens just ‘Is’, is that it relieves me of the need to ask questions such as ‘Why me!’ or ‘Why her!’ and reduces the stress that arises from what I expect to happen not matching what actually happens: it also saves the energy-draining need to blame myself, or others for events beyond my control. Notwithstanding all of this, I do keep in mind that I am personally responsible for the foreseeable consequences of my actions – I cannot just put it all down to fate.
Another benefit of acknowledging and contemplating the capriciousness of life is that it increases my empathy for the situation of others by reducing the urge, however well-disguised, to assign blame or opprobrium for their misfortune.
Philosophically, it can be very difficult to make sense of many (perhaps most) aspects of life and, no matter how I reconcile things in my mind, no matter what I settle on as my purpose in life, it will always be from a peculiarly personal perspective, one that others may well consider to be of little value. However, defining this personal reference point is important to me, it gives purpose to my life and prepares me to respond to it’s randomness in a thoughtful and principled manner.
Faced with extreme hardship and extreme brutality, Viktor Frankl concluded that the only purpose life had to offer was that which he gave it. This was one of the insights that enabled him to survive Auschwitz and go on to live a purposeful, highly productive and celebrated life. He also concluded that a lot of mental distress is related to people not having established a purpose in life, their own purpose, and therefore living in an ‘existential vacuum’. The fact that life is brutal for large numbers of people, is not a reason to give up contributing to a better world otherwise our lives really will have been without purpose.
Life can be likened to rowing across the Atlantic in a very small boat, one that, at any moment, could be swamped or sunk by a large wave. To some that journey would appear hopeless, even pointless, but that does not mean that we should stop rowing toward our chosen destination. There is a good chance that I will arrive in good time and in good spirits. When asked, ‘Why did you do that?’, my answer as ‘The rower’ will be uniquely mine.
Shifting my beliefs (my view of how the world operates) is usually a slow and steady, process – akin to leaning on a car to get it moving rather than taking a flying leap at it. Having said that, there has been the occasion where a sudden emotional shock has instantly and permanently changed a long-held belief.
No matter how long it takes to develop new and more helpful viewpoints, the payback makes it worthwhile.
Here’s to the journey!