Life: Gentle or Painful Teacher?

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), thought then of 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 unhappy 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 and 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? In 2018, I was involved in an unexpected hit-and-run accident. The person who caused this accident managed 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 to help me). Getting through that situation was very difficult. Similarly, I imagine that those who endured the 2019 General Motors-UAW strike rightly questioned the fairness of life and work. Going weeks with little to no pay is something that most of us would not want to volunteer for, at least not willingly, 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, no matter how much we may try, we do not have control over many of the events or the people in our lives. Sometimes, however, things work out in our favor, even when it did not seem like they would at one time or another. What seems like a bad experience can turn out to be 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 take it all in stride (and without becoming super bitter and angry). These kind of people always give 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 meanings to stuff or events that have happened just so that I could feel better about my own reality (or more in control). 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 feel 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 powerful part of life as we know it. 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 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 life, in ourselves, and in others, and we may choose to give up our power or to succumb to the power that life and others (including addictive substances and behaviors) have over us, whether we realize that or not. 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 and to ask for help if needed, and if help is wanted (because everyone has the right to reject help if they do not want to be helped). On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying to ourselves and to others that “I cannot do this alone or all by myself.” There are times in life that we genuinely need the help of others.

So, is life gentle or full of pain and suffering? Moreover, is life a teacher? Well, only you can answer these questions for yourself. What we each think about life has so very much to do with the social construction of our lives. In other words, we are largely products of our environments and the people around us. Therefore, if from your social world you were taught that you could survive just about anything you put your mind to; or, on the other hand, if you came to believe that life and most of the people in it have been out to get you, then those ideas or beliefs 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 (beliefs), people, and experiences (including the ones I rejected, or by the ones who rejected me). And, there are a handful of ideas, philosophies, and even people that I have encountered in life that no longer work for me. Believing that life is mysteriously out there (like a human being) acting on my behalf is one such belief that no longer works for me. On the other hand, the quality of my life has and will have everything to do with how I respond, or not, to what is happening in my life, and in life overall. In writing this blog, I am hopeful that you will embrace the philosophies and even the people in your life that make it worth living (starting with yourself). Because, after all, what is the alternative?

© 2019 annalise fonza, Ph.D.