One of the first lessons in the art of living is to learn to cope with problems in a healthy way. In general, we are to face our problems courageously, work through them, and come out on the other side better developed than before. Ernest Hemingway put it like this: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Some of us, unfortunately, carry through life the impression that there aren’t supposed to be any problems. We become agitated and anxious about problems because of the discomfort they cause. And we harbor additional anger because we have problems at all. This resentment proves that we have not yet learned one of the fundamentals in the art of spiritual living. Problems are not just inconveniences to be avoided or cursed, but mysteries to be lived. To avoid dealing with problems is to refuse to enroll in the School of Life.
We humans grow in stages from lesser to greater maturity. Problems are frequently the catalysts that nudge our growth along. We often realize this only in hindsight. We eventually recognize that we have become more established in our own individuality, more compassionate, more human and humble, because we have experienced our own difficult situations and struggles. We learn to accept the fact that we cannot separate our lives from the situations in which we live them. We cannot be a parent and then try to avoid all the problems of being a parent, or remain single and avoid the problems of living alone. The moment we try to do so, we become unrealistic and inauthentic. We start living an “if only” existence.
In an “if only” existence, we persist in the belief that we would be happy and free of problems, and be delightful people, “if only” something were different. If only I had a different spouse; if only I had a more understanding boss; if only I’d get a promotion; if only the people around me were more interesting; if only my health were better, my face and body more beautiful, my imperfections more controllable—then I would live a happy, fulfilled, useful life. In the meantime, we neglect the opportunities for growth and fulfillment that are found in our own situation and struggles here and now.
Living in an “if only” world turns us away from reality. We become professional dreamers who never wake up. We become experts at complaining because we cannot accept that we and our world are not perfect, that there are obstacles in our path. We never come to see problems as an integral part of life, as mysteries that are involved paradoxically in our development. We fail to appreciate what it means to be a human.
When we’re “if only” people, we have the tendency to move a lot. We try and avoid hard times by moving from spouse to spouse, job to job, house to house, friend to friend, unconsciously searching for a problem-free situation. Our restless changing indicates that we are running from life, running from ourselves. We will never find ourselves and become all we can be by running. We can only discover and bring to birth our real selves by living life as fully and realistically as possible in the “now”, not in the “if only.”
This article was reprinted from the book Reflections for Living by Fr. Lou Guntzelman. This book is currently out of print, however a few copies can be purchased at the following link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0884895238/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_7WxJsb1VBY54ET1B via @amazon