To bear misfortune is to overcome it

We may not agree with everything that happens in life, but what should we do when we are embroiled in events that we would not willingly choose? Should we fight them or accept them as the inevitable cost of being alive? Ah, that is the question! The key is balance between ACCEPTING what is unavoidable and STRUGGLING to change things for the better. But how do we know what is unavoidable? How do we know what can and should be changed? How do we distinguish between a path that leads to a futile fight with one that leads to a valiant victory?

To make the wrong choices leads to much heartache, regret, and suffering. Yet, it is not easy to distinguish between correct and incorrect action. It takes wisdom to do so. And wisdom rests firmly on knowledge, experience, common sense, and rational thinking. Let’s look at some examples.

Tom discovers that people often treat him and others rudely. Not because of anything Tom has done, but merely because they are thoughtless people. Understandably, Tom does not welcome rude behaviour. But since he, like all of us, must deal with others regularly, he is forced to experience rudeness. So, how should he respond? His natural inclination may be to get upset. We don’t have any control over emotions that spontaneously rise within us. However, once we are aware of anger or any other negative emotion, we can choose between letting it go or dwelling on it and giving in to it. So, after Tom feels a momentary flash of anger, he can brush it aside and get on with life or give in to it and react with hostility.

How should he respond? How would you respond? The correct response requires wisdom. And wisdom, to repeat myself, needs knowledge, experience, common sense, and rational thinking. Using these tools, let’s take a closer look at Tom’s problem. Is the rudeness he experiences unavoidable or can it be changed for the better? Sometimes it can be changed. For example, Tom can practice assertive behaviour and say to a store clerk, “Excuse me, Sir, after making a purchase, I don’t want you to throw my change on the counter like that because I feel like you are treating it or me like trash. Instead, I would like you to return the change politely to all your customers.” To which the clerk may respond, “Whoops! Sorry about that; I must have been daydreaming.” Yes, sometimes we can change things for the better.

On the other hand, the clerk may respond by saying, “Buzz off!” Now what do you do? You could speak to the Manager. But the Manager may defend the clerk by saying, “The store is very busy and he is under a great deal of pressure. He simply doesn’t have time to be, as you put it, ‘polite.'” The point is, sooner or later, we will discover that we cannot force EVERYONE to be polite. We will also discover our choices have consequences. For instance, we will learn that if we allow ourselves to be angry about the behaviour of others, we rob ourselves of happiness. For how can an angry person be a happy person? That’s what Buddha meant when he taught, “You will not be punished FOR your anger; you will be punished BY it.” To rob ourselves of happiness is self-defeating and, therefore, irrational.

Putting everything together, Tom gained the EXPERIENCE that people are sometimes rude. After taking various actions, he gained the KNOWLEDGE that you cannot change everyone for the better. He also experienced the pain of getting upset over something that is unavoidable. Later he experienced the peace and restoration of happiness that follows from letting go of negative feelings. Therefore, COMMON SENSE and RATIONAL THINKING led him to conclude he is better off accepting, not fighting, what cannot be changed. This conclusion was based on WISDOM. Can you see how when we bear (accept) misfortune, we, in fact, overcome it?

The wise are never disturbed by rudeness. For they have learned it is an opportunity to grow by practicing assertiveness, patience, compassion, and forgiveness. The unwise, who have grown up in a culture that glorifies violence as manliness, are afraid of appearing weak. So, they fight rudeness every step of the way. How ironic it is that in their attempts to appear strong, they reveal their own weaknesses. Another paradox is that those who ‘give in’ to rudeness by not getting upset are the ones who help eliminate it by their good examples.

There are times, however, when we should resist, such as for grievous injustice. The world needs the liberating influences of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 ~ 1968) and Nelson Mandela.(b. 1918). It also needs those unsung heroes who are lawyers in certain Muslim countries that dare to challenge the authorities or tradition. They courageously defend those who have been condemned to die by stoning because of adultery, premarital sex, or having the ‘audacity’ to be raped. (The crimes punishable by stoning vary in the countries that practice it.)

Of these great men and women who have fought injustice, it will be said, “Choosing to die resisting rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face.” (Taken from a funeral address delivered in 431 BC by Pericles, the statesman largely responsible for developing Athenian democracy.) Our responsibility is to follow the noble examples of past and present leaders by helping to end injustice, in whatever way we can, in our own community.

Let’s return to Tom and another problem. His doctor told him he has a terminal disease and will live for one year at the longest. What should Tom do? Should he calmly accept his death sentence or should he fight it? We have already learned that it is irrational to fight the unavoidable. After all, the inability to accept what is and what cannot be changed leads to unhappiness. But we also learned about the role of knowledge, experience, and common sense. Without these ingredients, we cannot make a wise decision.

Is Tom’s early death unavoidable, as the doctor claims? Well, sometimes inevitability is not a fact, but an interpretation. Psychoneuroimmunology (the field of medicine that deals with the effect of our thoughts and emotions on our immune system) clearly shows that a positive attitude (cheerfulness, faith, hope, courage, and the love of overcoming challenges) can have a profound influence on illness. Many of us know people who were told to prepare for death many years ago, but beat the odds and are in the best of health today. So, what should Tom do? Armed with the above knowledge and experience, common sense tells us that Tom has nothing to lose and everything to gain by maintaining a positive attitude. Wouldn’t you agree? Today’s lesson, then, is that we should accept what we cannot change, try to bring about change where it is needed, and develop the wisdom to distinguish between what can and cannot be changed.