- The weather
- A delayed flight
- Our current weight
- Other peoples’ behaviors
- Urges to give into habits we are trying to change
- Grief over losing a loved one
- Natural emotional responses
Learning to adapt to unavoidable forces takes time. Surfers learn to ride waves. This is a difficult skill that becomes less effortful with practice. Surfers completely depend on the waves to participate in the sport. They concede wholeheartedly to the fact that they cannot tame the ocean. They can, however, control the surfboard. We can learn to ride the waves that life throws our way just as surfers learn to surf. Often times, it is a matter of developing the right skills and/or gaining a new perspective that you continue to practice until that new technique or viewpoint becomes habit.
Perhaps try something similar to the advice I gave my son:
- The waves come and go, they do what they do...
- Grief comes and goes, it does what it does…
- My body has lumps here and weighs this, it does that right now…
- He overreacted, he did that…
- The urge to drink comes and goes, it does what it does…
Sometimes my son, husband, and I dig a hole close to where the tide rolls onto the beach. The hole fills with water and creates a little pool in which my son can jump, splash, and play without worrying about the waves overtaking him. In a way, we influence the ocean so that our son can safely play, while we also accept the waves’ natural tendencies. We do not fight the tides or ways of the waves. We recognize how far the tide rushes up the shore, start digging, and when the waves wash away that pool we dig another. We further teach our son to accept the temporary nature of this pool. Likewise, there are ways to attempt to influence other life events out of our control.
For example, we may exercise in order to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. Or adjust our perspective in order to influence our emotions. Or speak assertively in order to express hurt feelings, and hope that the person who hurt our feelings treats us with kindness. We do what we can to influence that which we cannot control, and hope it works. If it doesn’t work, we try to accept that we can’t change it in this moment, and move forward.
In some cases, avoidance may be a good choice, while in others avoidance prolongs suffering. If there comes a point where my son is afraid of waves, avoidance will not alleviate that fear; in fact, it will only strengthen it. Similarly, avoidance of grief or any other naturally occurring emotion will not assuage those painful feelings; instead, your wounds will deepen, your suffering will last longer, and your unresolved issues will multiply. Just as I would systematically and gently help my son approach the ocean, there are tender yet effective ways to handle many difficulties in life.
On occasion, avoidance is appropriate. Say a hurricane is approaching. It might be appropriate for my son to avoid the waves. Or maybe he has a bad cut on his leg. Once again, swimming in the sea would likely not be the best activity that day. Similarly, consider someone who repeatedly treats you with disrespect. At first, you may try to talk about it, express your feelings, and determine if the relationship is workable. If the disrespect continues, however, it might be time to acknowledge the toxicity of the relationship and end it.
At some point, we all learned that we could not change the waves. Providing you do not fear the ocean, you likely developed a healthy way of accepting the fact that waves have an irrepressible, natural course. What if we learned to view all things out of our control like a wave?