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Fujio was cutting the limb off a tree in his backyard. The branch he was sawing fell unexpectedly against his ladder, knocking him to the ground and seriously injuring his arm and shoulder. He was forced to undergo two surgeries and painful physical therapy. Fujio deeply regretted getting on that ladder, and it was easy for him to fall into “if only” thinking. Yet the gifts he received from the fall and the subsequent recovery were substantial. From that regret, Fujio discovered the depth of his courage, the love of his family and friends, and the fragile nature of life.
The lessons and gifts of our regrets are of great value because, when we recognize and accept them, they contribute to our spiritual growth and psychological development. Lessons and gifts inevitably arise as a consequence of our regrets, and their recognition is important because they give our regrets meaning. When recognized, they can change our lives for the better. The question is not whether the lessons and gifts are there but whether we will identify and use them. They must be there, because problems are always a source of potential lessons and gifts if we are receptive to seeing them. Nobody’s life is without problems, no matter how well hidden those problems may be.
For whatever reason, this is a world of difficulties with which we must cope (just as it is also a world of joys that we are privileged to experience). Joys, too, are sources of lessons and gifts. But the gifts of love, for example, are easier to identify than the gifts of tragedy. Difficulties are really challenges to us and important opportunities for growth, development, and personal triumph. “Life is suffering,” Buddha taught as the first of the Four Noble Truths. But he also taught that once suffering is accepted as part of life, it is transcended and is no longer suffering. Difficulties, once
accepted and dealt with effectively, no longer feel like difficulties. In our acceptance, we have transcended them.
But such transcendence is not easy.
The spiritual traditions of two millennia provide effective means for dealing with the disappointments, fears, and tragedies that characterize life—as well as its joys, rewards, and pleasures. Spiritual wisdom offers an alternative to the suffering and pain of regret. Our journey of letting go of regret is a journey of transcendence as well as a journey of psychological growth that will take us beyond the sadness, anger, and shame of our past. We cannot change our regrets—what happened to us or to other people— but we can change how we respond to those regrets and what we do about them. We can change their effect on us. We can transcend our regrets and let them go.
The distinguished American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote an insightful book on meeting life’s difficulties called The Road Less Traveled. It was published in 1978, became a decade-long best-seller, and profoundly affected the lives of many people. In the book, Dr. Peck offered a different perspective on life’s problems and challenges, describing them as essential to psychological growth, personal achievement, and individual satisfaction. An examination of our lives and activities will prove the wisdom of that perspective.
We take on certain difficulties in life quite willingly and even with great enthusiasm. The challenges they represent inspire us, teach us new skills, lead us into the company of others, and reward us in many ways. Whenever we begin a new project around the house, for example, accept a new assignment at work, or undertake learning a new skill, we have accepted a new challenge with all the difficulties it promises us. Yet we readily take them on for their rewards. Looked at from this perspective, what could hand us a greater set of difficulties (and rewards) than having children? As first-time parents, we face innumerable challenges, immense uncertainty, and terribly high stakes. But the challenge is so rewarding that we often take it on again with a second child!
Why we actively seek challenges of various kinds gives us a clue as to why it might be profitable to take on problems not of our choosing and even why we might be given them. Such problems are opportunities for us
STEP SIX: IDENTIFYING LESSONS AND GIFTS 131
to grow, to learn, and to share this knowledge and experience with others. The challenges we happily pursue are a model for handling the less desirable challenges in our lives: strategically and with the goal of learning from them. Once we get past the question of “Why me?” we can move to the question of, “How do I approach this and what can I learn from it or get out of it?” Accepting that no life is without problems allows us to see ourselves not as victims but as pilgrims. The issue is not whether we will have problems and regrets, because we will. The issue is whether we will triumph over them by learning from them and letting them go.
Working the Step
Step Six is worked in four parts. Part one is a search for lessons. Part two is a search for gifts. Part three is an application of the lessons and gifts to help ourselves. Part four is an application of the lessons and gifts to benefit others. The Action List for Step Six is shown in the following chart: