“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”
– Robert Kennedy, politician
“She said her biggest challenge was anger management…?”
Olivia was an educator, forty two years of age and off work for two years due to an auto collision which left her with a broken leg. She had gone through rehab and occupational therapy but still walked with a cane and a marked limp.
Olivia was a tall woman, striking and well dressed, but seemed to be dancing to her own ‘self-pity party.’ She was unconsciously playing the stereotypical ‘victim’ role. Her spouse, Oswald, an electrician, was ready to leave her and take their two kids, Otto, five years old and Odelia, four, to stay with his own parents in another part of the province.
She was also taking two prescription pain medications which left her drowsy, emotionally distant and cautious in her movements…presenting almost an intoxicated demeanour. But, her mind seemed clear despite her slow verbal responses.
Olivia said she was struggling to get her life back on track since her injury. She said her biggest challenge was anger management…especially with regard to her children and spouse.
Completing her personal history, she revealed she had a long history of having her dreams shattered. And this current one, was just another example of her being treated cruelly and unfairly by life.
When I asked her for the other examples, she told me she had missed a chance to be a professional model back when she was a teenager because it was too expensive and time consuming to have her teeth fixed. And later, when she was in her twenties, she missed getting into theatre school because of her poor marks.
“So, maybe it was really just a fantasy.”
I said to her,
“Olivia, it seems like you have experienced several significant losses at critical points in your past that have left you feeling mistreated by someone or something. Is that true?”
“Well, I’ve had a tough life! And, it seems to be staying that way, doesn’t it?” she said with an edge other voice, looking at me for confirmation of her dominant illusion about herself and her life so far.
To see how open and flexible her thinking was at this point, I offered,
“Olivia, did someone in your past tell you life would be, or should, be easy? I don’t know anyone with an easy life. I think that’s why we like to watch celebrities like England’s Royal Family. They have the same challenges we all have…health issues, money issues, work issues, family challenges and so on.”
“Yes, but they didn’t have each of their dreams destroyed, like I did!”
“Olivia, a dream is something you will need to work hard to achieve in the face of many obstacles. But, a fantasy, is something you really believe is not achievable and used to demean yourself. Did either being a model or going to theatre school fit into the fantasy category?”
She paused and then said,
“There was no way I was going to come up with the thousands of dollars to straighten my teeth at that time. And, my family was not in a position to help. And, looking back now, I wasn’t ready to leave my home and my friends. So, maybe it was really just a fantasy.”
Then she added, “But, theatre school was a real dream…but, then I didn’t work hard enough in university to get the grades I needed to get in.”
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
“… are you suggesting there is a perfection to my injury?”
“Did you consider finding ways to enhance your application to theatre school?”
“Oh sure! But, that was when I met Oswald and we wanted to get married and have kids…I guess other stuff got in the way.” she said, her voice trailing off remembering how her life evolved.
“So, I wonder if you had gotten in to theatre school, would you have the family you have today, Olivia?”
She paused again.
“I never considered it that way before! I suppose not!” she replied.
“If it was possible, would you have been willing to give up having Oswald and kids for a theatre career?”
“No! Not at all! But, why ask myself that kind of question?”
“Well, you are here today with a successful life…a family, a career and good health… except for your recent injury. Maybe your life is actually perfect already!” I suggested, wondering if she was ready yet to see the truth.
“Perfect? How can it be perfect, Ken if I’m still hobbling around with a two-year old injury?” she said, aghast at my audacity.
“Olivia, perfection is harmony, symmetry, synchronicity and balance. Perfection is the privilege of holding a child while knowing, simultaneously, the responsibilities involved.”
Then I continued with,
“Perfection is seeing a beautiful rose, but knowing simultaneously, its life span is short. Perfection is knowing you can still walk, but simultaneously, with pain.”
“Ken, are you suggesting there is a perfection to my injury?” she asked, her indignation still intact.
“We only think it’s a mistake because we assume we should get more pleasure than pain from the event.…
“Olivia, only you can decide that question. But, I have the privilege in my work of witnessing this perfection being uncovered with thousands of people who have experienced some form of trauma, like you.”
“Tell me how that’s possible…I don’t understand, Ken!”
“OK! Since you are sitting here today you are alive and well. This means whatever decisions you have made at any second in the past were successful in getting you to the next second of your life…so, you were successful in the choice you made. Then you moved to your next second and your next choice. And, you have been doing this all your life.”
“Ken, that would mean I haven’t made any mistakes if the only criteria is survival and I’m here, correct?”
“That’s correct, Olivia. We only think we have made a mistake when we perceive more pain than pleasure from a decision we’ve made. But, surviving that moment means we were successful. We only think it is a mistake because we assume we should get more pleasure than pain from the event. This is not possible, nor true…it’s just a common belief.”
“Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.”
– Benjamin Franklin, politician
“…if there were two sides to my injury and my life now, what’s in it for me to uncover it?
“Are you saying I can’t get more pleasure than pain at any moment in my life?”
“I’m just describing how nature works. We live in a dualistic environment where every event is equally pleasurable and painful…and there can be no exceptions. This natural law motivates us to stay vigilant and purposeful in our survival journey. And, we are a very successful species!”
“Ken, it is interesting you should say that to me. Just yesterday, I read the number one world problem is our population’s phenomenal growth rates…over 7 billion so far.”
“Yep! This is one of our most important survival skills. This duality law means you are noticing the pain of your injury…which is real and true. But, there is another side to it you have not been noticing.” I said, witnessing a softening of her perspective.
“Ken, can I be the devil’s advocate for a moment and ask, if there were two sides to my injury and even to my life now, what’s in it, for me to uncover it… why go to all the trouble to find the other side…what do I get for my effort?” she asked, genuinely curious now.
“Olivia, that’s an excellent question! When you have awareness of both sides of any situation, your understanding of your life grows dramatically which nurtures self-appreciation and gratitude for those around you. It also frees up your motivation for other important things…like your future!”
“… that’s what’s been going on for the last two years!”
“So, you’re saying, if I uncover the two sides to my situation, I will like me better and my family as well?” she said, starting to put the ideas together.
“Yes Olive, that’s exactly it. And, with more emotional balance comes more physical balance…better health and faster recovery…so you can get back to your life!”
“That’s exactly what I’m looking for…to get my life back! But Ken, one more question…what if I don’t want to take the risks involved?”
“Olivia, the natural system will send you more motivation in one or more of four forms to get you to act decisively for your own well being. Those four things are: additional challenges, distracting lower priorities, humbling events or tragedies.”
“Ken, that’s what’s been going on for the last two years!” she exclaimed.
Then she added,
“How do we begin?”
“We will start with your moment of greatest pain…because that is where lies hidden one of your great insights. Are you game for that, Olivia?”
“I’m going to be cautiously optimistic…but let’s do it!” she replied.
“I think that’s a wise attitude to take..let’s begin!”
“The real tragedy of our pain is the poverty of our aspirations to learn from it.”
– King Ayles, writer