Question 3: What lessons and gifts does this problem have to offer me?

Question 2

Of the four questions to ask yourself when things go wrong, this question is the happiest one. It bends our mind to the fact that all is not lost when things don’t go the way we want.

Years ago as a new therapist I was talking about a personal problem with a friend of mine. He gave me advice I have never forgotten: “If you work with this, it will give you gifts before it is all over.” He was right. I don’t even remember the problem, but I remember the lesson. If I work with my problems they will teach me lessons and give me gifts.

As I write this post many sayings come to mind that we all commonly hear. In fact, most of them are so common that they sound a bit trite, such as, “Every cloud has a silver lining” or “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

At least two things are true about this type of saying. First, they usually resulted from circumstances in someone’s life that were profound. For example, if you look up the saying about lemons and lemonade in Wikipedia you will learn it was originally penned by Elbert Hubbard in 1915 while writing the obituary of a man named Marshall Wilder. Wilder was a dwarf who, despite his limitations, became a well-known actor in the latter part of the 19th century. He refused P.T. Barnum’s offer to join his circus in order to do “legitimate” acting and counted King Edward VII as one of his fans. The King eventually attended some twenty of Wilders’ performances. Hubbard wrote about Wilder that, “He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand.” (Wikipedia)

Second, if you are in the middle of a difficult situation and are able to have a positive focus, these sayings won’t seem trite. For those able to see their truth, they offer hope and energy to continue when life is difficult.

This is a great lesson to teach our kids. When visiting San Francisco recently I went with a friend and his young son to visit the Exploratorium, a science museum especially designed to interest children. My friend’s son and I both like science, and he had particularly wanted to go to the museum with me on my free day–my last day in San Francisco. I had promised him this trip for months. Unfortunately, when we arrived to the museum it was a Monday, and it was closed. One look at my young friend’s face convinced me that I wanted to do something to improve the situation right away. The museum store was open for business (of course!) so I told him, “Since we have to postpone our visit, I think you should have something fun to do until we come back when the museum is open. It will be something that you would not have gotten if the museum was open. How cool is that?” His eyes brightened, and he went home with a new erector set which we used to build a space ship. He also experienced for himself that unhappy events can lead to happy ones.

Of course, many of life’s circumstances are more severe than a closed museum. In their wonderful and wise book The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham propose that we obtain our spiritual growth more from our imperfections in life than our natural strengths. It’s true. I’ve had more than one alcoholic sit in my office and tell me in all seriousness that the work of recovery from alcoholism resulted in a life much deeper and richer than would have otherwise been the case.

So, when things get dismal, work with your problems. Don’t hunker down and pretend that they don’t exist. Instead, develop an expectation of good to come out of bad. You will be richer for it.

David

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