Someone once said, “It’s not when my problems come one at a time that I have difficulty. It’s when they travel in a pack that things get out of hand!”
Challenges test us. There is no doubt about it. How we go about managing a crisis, however, and the meaning we give it often determines whether it feels like it’s alone or “traveling in a pack”.
Study after study suggests that it’s how we make meaning of what is happening to us that will govern how well we manage the impact of hard times. People who are the most resilient, who manage stress the best, tend to view challenges as an unavoidable aspect of life, not a sign that the universe has it in for them.
It is the ability to make meaning, to influence how we think about or focus on a challenge, that can determine how successful we are in dealing with life’s adversities. Often, if we are open to believing that we will grow and be strengthened by challenges, we are then able to see the wisdom that we have gained (about life, and perhaps about ourselves or others).
One of my favorite illustrations of this way of seeing the world is the Zen story of the pilgrim and the shark. Once a devout pilgrim took a sea voyage to visit a famous temple, hoping to have one of the priests enlighten her as to the reasons for suffering in the world.
The ship was caught in a terrible storm, and all the crew and passengers except for the pilgrim were lost at sea. After the storm passed, the pilgrim saw a distant island and began to swim to it, but tired and became convinced she would drown before she reached safety.
Wondering why she had been so harshly treated despite being so devout, she began to pray to be saved. Suddenly the fin of a great white shark broke the water’s surface.
Terrified at the horrible prospect of being attacked by the shark, she began to swim furiously towards the island. Several times she tired and became convinced she would drown, but each time the shark’s fin broke the water’s surface and she would once again swim determinedly for shore.
Eventually she reached the island and safety. Once on the shore, she turned to the ocean and intended to curse both the shark and her deity for treating her so maliciously.
But the pilgrim paused, and realized her prayer had been answered; she had been saved. Reflecting further, she also realized that had it not been for the shark and the fear it caused in her, she would have drown long before she could have reached the island.
In that moment the pilgrim realized that but for the shark, a thing she had at that time deemed to be the worst thing that could possibly happen to her, she never would have survived.
Understanding this truth, the pilgrim bowed to the shark as it’s fin slowly headed back out to sea, thanking it for the gift of her life.
May we all have the wisdom to “bow to our sharks,” as they appear in our own lives.
Photo credit: steve.garner3 via Flickr