The other day a good friend of mine gave me a book that she thought would be interesting for me to read: Shattered Dreams, by Larry Crabb. Ever since I came out of a crippling depression well over a decade ago, I’ve dedicated myself to discovering and understanding the elements that promote well-being and joy on a day-to-day basis.
I choose to see the bad things that happen as stimuli for growth, blessings and change, no matter how unwelcome in the moment these events might be, and encourage others to cultivate this hopeful belief. That said, I realize that though there is much we can do to help keep our heads above water in the face of tidal waves that hit our lives, sometimes things can be so bad or so disappointing and discouraging that it’s all one can do to keep breathing.
If I’m going to really be of use to people, as a coach and as an expert in mental, physical and spiritual health, it’s important to be able to understand and integrate the full human experience. Hopefully the thoughts here will help you to do the same, especially if life has felt deeply unfair to you.
I’m going to share some thoughts from the book as well as my related thoughts, but before I do so I think it’s important to let you know that Crabb is a clinical psychologist who is also a well-known Christian author, and the book brings an intense Christian perspective to the concept of broken dreams. That said, there is still general wisdom within the pages that I think would resonate with anyone regardless of their specific beliefs, and that’s what I’ll share with you here:
"We have a hard time understanding the nature of our journey through this life. We still think that things should go well and that we should feel good. The commitment arising from this belief is what makes it so difficult, so unreasonable, to forgive people who have hurt us (we think they have violated our purpose for living). That same commitment…makes true recovery from painful backgrounds impossible."
This idea is a hard one to hold in the brain, I feel a sort of cognitive dissonance when I do. I still believe that life is good, that there is always much to be grateful for, that one can expect and hope for good things and that that is healthy and wise. At a recent Mind-Body Medicine course I took at Harvard Medical School, they spoke about "positive expectation" (expecting, as a rule, that things will go well and/or turn out well) as one of the top two attitudes that predict overall well-being.
Still, I have to learn how to hold this affirming belief in my head, along with the opposite belief that sometimes really terrible things happen, and that somehow that’s okay too. That just because I work hard at being a good person doesn’t mean that life will always be easy. Things will still go terribly wrong.
Though there is so much good to see in life and the human experience, life at its core isn’t really about what will make us happiest and keep things feeling "good". I believe this is the core message that Crabb is trying to get across. When we believe and insist that the ultimate purpose of life (and the purpose of the other people in our lives) is to make us feel fulfilled and content, we can become very unreasonable about and rejecting of (and even downright unforgiving) about events that unfold.
"We assume life is supposed to work in ways that make us feel the way we want to feel, the way we intuitively and irresistibly sense we were designed to feel. We further assume that if there is a God, His job is to do what we cannot do to make life work as we want. We conceive of the spiritual journey as a cooperative enterprise where we pool our resources with God’s to see to it that life works well enough to keep us relatively happy…"
I confess I’m guilty of this. I believe there is a God and I’ve been blessed in so many ways (and have had so many prayers answered, seemingly) that I do tend to think of God as a force that exists to fix things and make my life better. I do believe that this to some degree is what the presence of a Higher Power is there for (for those of us who believe in that), and I do believe that God blesses each of us over the course of our lives. One of the greatest blessings is the ability to feel gratitude – study after study shows that feelings of deep appreciation do wonders for the health of body and mind.
I do think that in my life I have been so blessed that I can slip into a feeling of entitlement, perhaps even thinking that the blessings in my life are "deserved". It’s true that what we reap we sow, so if we reap good things we can expect good things in life…but life isn’t totally black and white like that. Sometimes terrible things come into the lives of very good people. It isn’t necessarily a consequence for something bad they did.
"Healthy, normal people feel wonderful when good things happen. They should….But when things go badly…can we understand that the mix of fulfilled dreams and shattered dreams in our lives is necessary if we are to grow?"
As the years go by I am more and more aware of this truth. Some things in my life go so spectacularly well that only a Divine being could have opened those kinds of doors and poured that kind of blessing into my life. Other things crash and burn spectacularly, unexpectedly, and I wonder why I seem cursed in a certain area of my life. The distribution of blessing and loss is totally unique to each individual’s life, and often doesn’t make sense to anyone.
Life really is beautiful though. I think embracing and living it fully is letting yourself feel both the highs and the lows, celebrating when it is time for celebrating and grieving when it is time to grieve, and sometimes both happen at once.
Do what you can to feel good (eat well, exercise, laugh, spend time with loved ones, follow your dreams, do what you love), because that is good. Yet at the same time don’t be afraid of sometimes feeling really, really bad. That’s human too. Don’t get stuck there for so long that you can’t get out – but that doesn’t mean you need to be afraid of it. Let yourself "be" in it while it’s time to be there. That’s when, personally, I’ve felt closest to God and have learned to trust God most – even when it looks like He’s left the building.
What has your experience been? Let me know in the Comment section below.