That which does not kill us makes us stronger, but, honestly, if you have the choice, you would never choose hardship, would you? Why not be “weaker,” if it means you get to travel a road that is free from heartache and adversity? Yet, can anything really mean that much to you, bring you that much happiness or joy, if it doesn’t also come with the inevitable deep pain of losing it?
As much as we try to be the masters of our own fate, we’re not. Twelve years ago today thousands of people had life as they knew it destroyed. In a very real sense, all Americans had life as we knew it destroyed. The families and friends of those who died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the fields of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, faced this harsh truth. Yet, at some point or another, we all do.
There you are, traveling along your life, joined by family and friends, filled with the career you enjoy, a nice a home, financial stability, good health, when suddenly, BAM, everything you knew, you counted on, you worked for, you DESERVED, is gone. Or maybe it happened more slowly, bit by bit, a loss here or there, then another, until one day you realize everything has fallen away. Your life is unrecognizable. The path you thought lay before you ends up permanently blocked.
As much as your life is about charting the right path, we don’t always get to choose the path we’re meant to travel. It is in tragedy that Life gains meaning, that it becomes worth living. Life-altering tragedies happen every day. Each new sunrise carries the risk of heart attacks, cancer, fatal diseases, car – plane – train crashes, floods, earthquakes, irreparable injuries, criminal assaults, getting divorced, being fired or laid off, and any number of unexpected, unforeseen things that can strike down carefully laid plans and wipe out the comfortable road that you were on, depriving you of the chance to be where you wanted to be and felt you belonged.
When tragedy strikes, we are denied access to the path we want and are forced to accept that our future lies in some other direction, and with it comes the frightening, maddening, ego-obliterating reality that we are now meant to live our life serving a purpose we never planned for, one we don’t want, never wanted, and hate that we even have to consider. Yet, often that alternative path brings your life greater meaning, greater substance, greater reward than the easier, simpler life you had ever could.
You know the stories. Consider Christopher Reeve, who played Superman, but never was more of a superhero than when he inspired others with spinal cord injuries to keep up their faith and spearheaded massive research fundraising. Sure, he would never have chosen that path, but he could have died at the time of the accident. If he was given a choice to have instantly died, or to have the chance to bring about all the residual good he did in the years between the accident and his death, do you think he would have chosen to have that extra time and to serve that greater purpose? By the time he died, do you think he felt his life and his relationships had more depth and meaning than they ever had before the accident? There are so many stories like this, some famous and on a large scale, but for most of us, the path that follows adversity is quieter, serving a smaller circle of lives, yet is no less meaningful or enduring.
So, we ask why it is that bad things happen, when the real question is, how could we ever be human without having “bad” things happen to us? Unlike the rest of the animal world, we can conceive of what is happening all around us. We can understand. The fact that we have consciousness, that we can judge a thing “good” or “bad,” is exactly why bad things must happen. We would not exist as humans, if not for being able to “know” there is good and there is bad. If ever there can be a definition of what it is to have a soul, it is the ability to know good from bad, to feel grief as the price of being able to know joy and love. If nothing bad ever happened, if we never felt pain or sadness, how could we become anything more than emotional and intellectual vegetables?
Sometimes, no matter how hard or how long you work to chart a safe and successful life for yourself and your family, events beyond your control can throw you off that path, wipe it out completely, forcing you to find a new path. Being able to accept that new path is what defines your purpose in life. Even though every fiber of your being is fighting against the change that is being forced upon you, the greatest challenge you can face and the greatest accomplishment you can achieve in your life is finding the strength and faith to accept a path of deeper meaning and greater substance.
If nothing bad ever happened, we would all be experiencing eternal peace. No one, no religious leader, no prophet, politician or even snake oil salesman has ever dared promise you can find eternal peace while here on earth. Being able to understand and feel pain, fear, and loss is what motivates every act of goodness, of kindness, of humanity. It’s what takes us out of ourselves and joins our lives with others.
In the words of Helen Keller, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Tragedy may throw you off your course, but carrying on, gaining strength from what was good before and using it to bring good to what is yet to come, is what ultimately guides you to your destiny.