Life, it seems to me, is a series of relatively random occurrences that befall us one after the other. Sure, there are ways to enhance the probability of an outcome (exercising and eating healthy give a better chance to avoid heart disease, smoking promotes the likelihood of lung cancer developing, for instance), but these desirable, and conversely, undesirable outcomes ultimately happen indiscriminately. Some of the healthiest people ever, folks who haven't even inhaled one puff of smoke in their lives, get cancer of the lungs; some crotchety, old alcoholics are pushing 100. It is just the way of things.
But what we, as humans, tend to do is attached value assessments where they do not belong. When someone becomes ill, we automatically bemoan, "How sad." When someone stumbles upon sudden wealth, we all exclaim, "How lucky!" (Unless we hate the person, I suppose. Then we just say, "Why not me?") But the fact is that we are never sure in the moment if something truly is sad, happy, or anything in between. Things just are.
Ajahn Brahm, a wonderful Buddhist monk who I have written about before, once wrote a book called Good? Bad? Who Knows? While the title of the book seems almost self-explanatory, he broaches the very issue I bring to light: why do we think certain things are expressly "bad" while others are automatically "good"?
Here's an anecdote to illustrate my point:
A man wins first prize in a raffle -- a brand new Ferrari. "How lucky!" say his friends. "My, it is so good that you've won that new car!"
"Is it?" the man replies.
Two days later, he picks up the keys to his new vehicle and begins driving it home to his lovely house on a hill over the ocean in San Diego. About three miles away from his home, a drunk driver speeds through a red light and t-bones the Ferrari, driver side. The man is rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
By the time he awakens in his hospital bed, his friends and family surround him, exclaiming: "How awful! Oh, what bad luck! This is so terrible for you!"
"Is it?" the man replies.
That night, as he lay peacefully asleep in the hospital around 2 am, a heavy gust of wind hits the hillside under the man's house at just the perfect angle to erode a foundation beneath the structure. The house tumbles down the cliff, into the sea. Had he never been in the car accident, where would he have been at that moment? "How lucky!" they all say. "This is so good!"
To which he, of course, replies, "Is it?"
That anecdote is one of my favorite illustrations of Ajahn Brahm's basic thesis of Good? Bad? Who Knows? In our search to make sense of everything, we attach an arbitrary meaning to events without knowing the end of the story.
What if you get cancer? Is that automatically bad? It may serve as something that strengthens your fortitude, that allows you to inspire others… or maybe not. But if it did, would that be bad? Even if someone dies of an illness, there is a bright spot somewhere. Perhaps they have left a legacy of love or memories for those around them, something that may not have come to the surface in the same way had the "bad" event not happened. There's simply no way to know.
We never truly know if something is good or bad until long after it happens.
So the next time something good or bad happens, rather than letting the knee-jerk reaction affect your mood, take some time to be like the man in the story. When someone tells you how amazing or horrific your something may be, look them in the eye and ask a simple question:
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