A guide to difficult times

We tend to classify events into those that are good and those that are bad, the reference point being our own well-being. When things happen that we don’t like, when the world seems terribly unfair, we wonder why bad things happen to good people, good people like us. In the midst of terrible hardship such as earthquake, flood, serious illness or the death of a loved one, it’s often challenging to make sense of things.

There are those who believe in fate: what occurs is predestined and unavoidable. While this view offers the comfort of surrendering to external forces greater than ourselves, if we’re lazy-minded` it robs us of our will and provides a handy self-justifying excuse for everything we and others do. The good and bad of the world remain beyond our personal responsibility. Considering ourselves in God’s hands is not unlike belief in fate. God’s will is unfathomable and beyond understanding. Ah, well.

Others believe in cause and effect: what happens is the consequence of other things that happen. Seeing things in this way provides us the opportunity to participate in outcomes with confidence and playfulness, but also tends to promote the simplistic belief that we can fully control events. The good and bad actions of other people and natural forces, however, are simultaneous with our own, making reality an infinitely complex web of probabilities.

Yet another view is that each moment is completely fresh: the world is recreated anew in each and every moment. This view offers the powerful experience of letting go – seeing what has happened as totally gone, what may happen next as fantasy and the present moment as all we have to work with. Paradoxically, the present moment is ungraspable. While liberating, taken to extremes this view can lead to wildly hedonistic behavior if responsibility is discarded and intention becomes purely self-centered.

A totalistic perspective accommodates all and everything: good and bad are simply two sides of the same coin, as are birth and death. The arising of each and every moment simultaneously engenders its own demise and this is the basic nature of the unfolding spontaneity of life, an immutably impermanent moment-to-moment continuity of change. If confused, this view can veer towards nihilism, the certainty that nothing actually matters and that there is no right or wrong.

When great misfortune strikes and the world tilts on its axis, philosophy takes a back seat to actual experience and each of us must cope in our own particular way. We do not live a philosophy, we live a life, and whatever our views may be at any one point or another, highly dramatic events can always reach beyond the limits of conceptual belief. It’s at life’s most terrible moments that we come face to face with being human, plain and simple: grief, shock, a broken heart.

Yet difficult times may potentially lead us to deeper truth and understanding. Such moments have great power, and it’s possible to harness their energy to transformative wisdom. Jungian analyst Florida Scott-Maxwell, a writer whose most important work was written while she was in her mid-80s, expressed this brilliantly: “Life does not accommodate you;” she said, “it shatters you. Every seed destroys its container, or else there would be no fruition.”