It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.
Do you think that life just happens to you? That you are simply a pawn in the game of life? Because there are so many things that we don’t have control over in our lives, it can be easy to fall into this kind of mental trap. The problem is that when adopt this kind of thinking, then we have placed an unhelpful filter through which we view everything that happens in our lives.
While there is plenty of debate within the stoic community as to whether or not stoics are fatalists, meaning they believe that life happens as fate determines, I honestly don’t worry too much about it. If we are simply following out the plan of life that is predetermined for us, then there is really nothing we can do about it. If we aren’t and we actually do have freewill, then we should keep doing our best to live the best life we can.
With that said, it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling like life just happens to us, and that we have little to no control over anything. And if this is the case, and we have little to no control over out lives, then adjusting our outlook to be of the mind that everything that happens actually happens “for us” and not just “to us” can certainly make the trip much more enjoyable.
So let’s take a look at each of these perspectives.
When we believe that life happens “to us” then there is very little that we can do about it. Everything is just going to happen and we just have to endure it. We feel like victims because we have no control over all these things happening to us. We wish things would happen the way we want them to, and when things don’t go the way that we want we complain about it. We blame our failures on someone or something outside of ourselves. We are simply at the whim of all these external forces.
When we believe that life happens “for us”, the same things may happen, but how we respond to them and how we let them impact us is quite different. We are no longer a victim of circumstance. We look at everything with an eye as to what we can learn from this situation. We find ways to become stronger from what happens to us. We are curious about what is happening, and how we might even be able to enjoy things, even if they are challenging or uncomfortable. There is also no one to “blame” for anything because even if something sucks, if we approach it as something that life is supposed to bring our way, that it really is something for us to learn from.
An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.
When we hit setbacks, we don’t look around for someone to blame for it, we recognize that the setback is there for us to learn. Maybe it’s to teach us persistence. Maybe it’s a sign for us to change course. Maybe we missed something along the way and the setback is time for us to evaluate other opportunities.
Let’s take an example that can show the difference between these two perspectives. Let’s say that you had to have a difficult conversation with someone, and you knew that things could get heated. If you were to approach this with a “to me” attitude, you would be frustrated with this person that they are getting angry with you or not listening to your point of view. You might be defensive with them because of all the things they were doing to you. You might even avoid the conversation in the first place.
But if you were to approach them with an “for me” attitude, you would see it as an opportunity. You might see this as a chance for you to practice listening to this person and to hear their concerns. You would see it as an opportunity to craft a solution that suits both of you. You would be more likely to approach it with compassion rather than defensiveness. It would also make it less likely for you to avoid the situation in first place.
So why do we feel like most things happen to us rather than for us? It think there are a number of reasons. First is that quite naturally we don’t have much control over many of the things that life sends our way. I mean the fact that we don’t control where we were born, the color of our skin, or the family that we belong to, we recognize that some of the core parts of our life are just chance. Because we have little control over some of the key aspect of our life, it’s natural to apply this to other areas of our lives.
I think another big reason is that humans are great at taking the path of least resistance and it’s easier to blame what happens on things outside of ourselves. Taking ownership of our lives is a lot of work. It’s something that we all talk about, but to actually step up and so is not something most of us are good at. We’re not really taught to accept responsibility, we’re taught not to fail. I mean think about in school. If you mess up a test or class project, you’re punished for it. You get bad grades and you get in trouble with your parents. We don’t look at those things as signals that you are not understanding something or pointing to areas that you need to work on. And so we do our best to avoid having that failure on us, so we look to find someone or something to blame.
I do want to point out though that this is not the same as the platitude that “everything happens for a reason”. I find this is very popular in religious circles and it always rubbed me wrong because to me it always implied that you were either being rewarded or punished by god for being a good or bad person. People don’t get cancer for a good reason. People don’t get abused by their parents for a reason. That’s just not how life works. Life just happens, and sometimes it sucks and can be pretty damaging, and it’s so much easier to just blame everything that is wrong on something outside of ourselves.
I like to think of “for me” is a much more neutral perspective. Life puts these things out there for me, and I can decide what I want to do with them. I can learn from them, and grow stronger. I can ignore them, and try to find ways avoid them. But if we really want to be in control of our lives, we need to look at challenges not as something that is in our way, but more like an obstacle course that we choose to test ourselves and something that we can improve our skills in overcoming. When we can recognize that life and it’s many challenges are here for us, the better we can get about just facing things head on with curiosity and compassion.
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