Recently, during a morning meditation, I read something that said that life is a “painful teacher”. On the other hand – and on many occasions – I have heard people say that life is a “gentle teacher”. As I reflected on these two competing assertions, I thought to myself: which one is it? And, is life really a teacher?
In pondering this question, I also remembered what happened just the night before, as I was lying in the bed about to go sleep and thinking over my day. That night, as I lie there, I heard the sound of a bad car accident on the road below and outside my window. After it happened, I also heard the faint cry of a woman. As I got up to look out the window, there were soon many police cars swarming the area. I imagined, for those persons involved in that accident (on both sides of the equation), that in that moment they were experiencing life as very painful. And, perhaps, each one was asking herself or himself, “Why me?”
On other occasions, life can be sweet and gentle, especially if you have no fear of running out of money. Money can make life much more pleasant for all of us; so when a person is born into a family with money or prestige or power, he might feel good about life, and most of the time. Or, if somehow you hit the lottery; if you come upon some kind of good fortune and you are in a position where you do not lack money to pay for what you want and need, life can be sweet. Perhaps these monied persons, or the rich, believe that they deserve such things.
Yet, there are many with money, prestige, power, and all the material things they could ever need or want, and still they are very unhappy with life, and they feel very lonely. For example, the well-known comedian Robin Williams seemed to have it all, and he was in the business of making many others laugh and smile. But, deep down, he was a very sad man, and to the extent that he eventually decided to end his life by suicide. And, there are many that seem to “have it all”, but they slowly but surely destroy their otherwise comfortable lives, bodies, and relationships with others with the irresponsible use of drugs, alcohol, and all other kinds of compulsive abuses.
By contrast, what happens when things seem to be going well, but then life changes abruptly, and you get some bad news, like your newborn is soon to die, or you are diagnosed with cancer, or you lose your primary source of income? Last year, in 2018, I was involved in an unexpected hit-and-run accident. The person who caused this accident was able to get away and leave three totaled cars behind, including my car and a car belonging to one of my loved ones (who was there merely there to help me). Getting through that life experience was very difficult. Similarly, I imagine that those who are enduring the General Motors-UAW strike are questioning life right about now. Going weeks with little to no pay is something that most of us would not want to volunteer for, at least not willingly (by the way, it makes me sad to see that the national media sites are spending so little time reporting on such an important strike), and definitely not without other concessions in place.
Life is constantly changing and causing us to reassess what we feel about ourselves, about others, about the places where we live and work, and about life in general. Because of life’s constant changing (e.g., evolution), are we to think that life is purposefully being “a teacher”? As much as we try to deny it, life is very unpredictable and uncontrollable (and truth be told, we do not have control over the people in our lives). Sometimes things work out, even when it did not seem like they would in the beginning. And, it doesn’t happen all the time, but what seems like a bad experience can turn into something very positive, and even very good. Personally, I have known some people who have endured some very difficult life circumstances, and I stand in awe of them and their ability to go on without much resentment and bitterness. Their courage always gives me strength and hope, and they have helped me to believe in the goodness of life, and in the goodness of human beings.
Thus far, I don’t think life is either a gentle or a painful teacher. I believe that life is very random, and sometimes things happen with no plausible rhyme or reason. Often, we find out what we’re made of and what we think of ourselves when we are forced to go through difficult times in life. Years ago, I decided to stop imagining life as a teacher or as a being with any human-like attributes. Once I stopped believing in gods and supernatural beings, I also stopped anthropomorphicizing things that I could not explain. I stopped giving false meaning to stuff or events that have happened just so that I could feel better about my own reality. My philosophy is that life just is, and, most of the time we have no choice but to accept life on life’s terms. We do NOT control life or its many circumstances, and frankly I do not believe that anything does, and that includes me. Life happens. It is a power bigger and greater than we humans, and the sooner that we accept that, I believe, the better off we will be. As much as we might want to say that life is “all good”, the truth is that we do not know what will happen from one minute to the next, or even from one second to the next. Life can be good, but there are times when it can be or it actually feels bad, and very bad at that. Unfortunately, we are often at the mercy of life, and thus powerless over our circumstances and those of the people around us, including the ones that we know intimately. The choices that we make in life, in response to life, and all that we experience ( the good, bad, and the ugly), will, consequently, have some kind of affect upon the quality of our lives, but that is another blog topic in and of itself.
That being said, my philosophy is also that we have life inside of us, and therefore, we are a part of the power that life has to offer. Furthermore, I believe that we humans – as a species – have what it takes to endure many of life’s challenges, whether we realize that or not. We humans, and all species for that matter, are part of the same life that befalls us all and, if we are lucky, we will have something to do with how it all turns out. At times, we will tap that power and face life with a courage that we never knew that we had, and we will succeed; but, there are times that we will fail: utterly. There are also times that we may lose faith in ourselves and others, and we may choose to give up our power or to succumb to the power that life and others have over us, whether we realize that or not. This is often not good, and I have seen this have devastating consequences for the loved ones in my life. Indeed, those are difficult and sometimes hopeless-feeling times. If we get to that point, or if they get to that point, it is important to be honest with those we trust and to ask for the help if needed, and if help is wanted (because everyone has the right to reject help if they so desire). On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying I cannot do this alone or all by myself.
So, is life gentle or full of pain and suffering? Moreover, is life a teacher? Well, only you can be the judge and perhaps the jury of what you experience in life. What we each think about life has so very much to do with the social construction of our lives as we know them (indeed, I am a social scientist!). In other words, we are largely products of our environments and the people around us. Therefore, if from your social world you learned that you could survive just about anything you put your mind to, or if you learned that life and most of the people in it were out to get you, then that will have some bearing on how you face the inevitable and evolutionary changes of life. So far, my approach to life has been informed by many philosophies, people, and experiences (including the ones I rejected, or by the ones who rejected me). In my book, it is definitely okay to reject ideas and philosophies when they no longer hold true for me. It is also okay to learn important life lessons when I am forced to face the rejection or betrayal of others. In writing this blog, I am hopeful that you will find the philosophies that make your life worth living. Because, after all, what is the alternative?
© 2019 annalise fonza, Ph.D.