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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/1/11

A sober take on setbacks

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In the past few days I have been approached by a number of people who poured out their heart about their setbacks. The emotions they displayed varied from anger, frustration, and disappointment, to self-doubt, hopelessness, and concern. One young man, a long-time house friend - I will refer to him here as Roger - stopped by and expressed his despair about losing his family. Roger had just been released from jail after a drunk-driving incident, and found that his wife and son had left. The wife did not even want to meet up with him to talk things over, and Roger missed his son. As the conversation progressed, it turned out that the couple had experienced many emotional bumps on the road of togetherness. Roger was unemployed at the moment, because his wife couldn't deal with any nice-looking young woman around him. In our conversation it turned out that Roger blamed her for being without a job at the moment, because the pressure she exerted was simply unbearable to endure. On top of it all, Roger had restarted an old nasty habit: drinking, which had caused him the drunk-driving troubles and incarceration of the past weeks.


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Here was a young man, not even thirty years old, who was clearly in knots with himself. There were moments that Roger wanted his family back, and other moments where he admitted that he actually didn't want his wife back, because her jealousy was suffocating him. He clarified that his main concern was his infant son, for whom he wanted the very best in life. I used this emphasis on the person he obviously considered most important in his life to make a few suggestions to my young friend. I told him that the first thing he should do is work on his improvement. Drinking was a no-no if he even remotely hoped to have a chance of seeing his son. My second suggestion was based on an action plan: finding a job as soon as possible. I explained to Roger that we all live our own lives, but we also have a tendency to accuse others of the mishaps we experience. If you have a nice job and feel that this is the direction you would like to go into, how can a partner who claims to want the best for you withhold you from that? And yet, we often confuse excessive jealousy with love, especially when we are young. Based on this confusion, we allow partners to withhold us from progress, only to point an accusing finger to these partners at a later stage in our lives. If the partner is still around, life becomes hell. If the partner is not, we struggle with self-despise for ever being so weak. My advice to Roger was to find a decent job as soon as possible, and get himself back on his feet. Very few people are attracted to a jobless drunk who feels sorry for himself.

I finally suggested my young friend to take some time to seriously consider what he really wants. Everything happens for a reason, and the fact that Roger's wife left while he was in jail served a purpose. However, the only person who could figure out what this reason was, was him.


Roger left in a seemingly better mood, and promised to return next week with an update on his progress in his self-improvement operations.


Another friend of mine, more recent in friendship timespan, but older than Roger, emailed me about his woos. Derrick (not his real name) had a faculty position at a local University, but was hoping for a full time position. However, when a job opening for a full time position came, Derrick was not even invited to apply. Derrick questioned the system, the university, and the people he worked with. Being older than Roger, Derrick included in his email that he was grateful for his current position and all the opportunities it offered to him, but he still felt disheartened about being passed over, particularly because he had been aggressively working at meeting all requirements.


I wrote to Derrick that he had two choices when facing his situation: he could choose to be disheartened and become bitter, or decide that this lesson taught him to continue performing to his very best abilities, and wait until the right opportunity would come around. This opportunity could, of course, look entirely different than he was currently envisioning, so he should not curtail his expectations. I suggested to Derrick to focus on all the blessings he had encountered so far, and not take things personal. I again brought up that everything happens for a reason, and that the insights usually come much later why things had to happen the way they did: why we didn't get a particular job, partner, opportunity, and the like.


Then there was Rosy, a veteran friend, whom I knew since High school. She wrote me a sad letter that she finally received a position she had been hoping for during a long time. However, now that the offer was made, she started to second guess the motives behind it. This was a position abroad, offering countless opportunities to create a lifelong, powerful global network. But why was she being sent away? Did they want to get rid of her? In spite of the many congratulations she received, she kept questioning any possible dark clouds on the horizon, worrying that she was simply being "promoted away."


I replied to Rosy that she was only torturing herself with such thoughts, while she could also choose to think of the opportunity she was getting to make some big time progress in her life. There were some more complications to the story, such as a long term, possibly one-sided, love affair that would have to be frozen in the coming years. My perspective was that if the feelings were one sided in Rosy's opinion, this move to another country was definitely a blessing! She could now learn to concentrate on other people, and maybe even meet a serious and reciprocating partner.  


I considered the three independent cases and asked myself what their common theme is. I think it's a combination of focusing on the negative and self-pity. Roger, Derrick and Rosy actually had a lot going for them: they were all able-bodied, able-minded, intelligent, good looking people. But they were facing some changes in their lives, and did not like the way things were developing, even though part of them understood and appreciated the blessings they so far encountered.

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Joan Marques is the author of "Joy at Work, Work at Joy: Living and Working Mindfully Every Day" (Personhood Press, 2010), and co-editor of "The Workplace and Spirituality: New Perspectives in Research and Practice" (Skylight Paths, 2009), an (more...)
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