Earlier today, I was sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich for lunch when an elderly couple pulled their car up under a nearby oak tree. They rolled down the windows and turned up some jazz music on the radio. Then the man got out of the car, walked around to the passenger side, and opened the door for the woman. He took her hand and helped her out of her seat, guided her about ten feet away from the car, and they slow danced for the next half hour under the oak tree.
It was a beautiful sight to see. I could have watched them forever. And as they wrapped things up and started making their way back to the car, I clapped my hands in admiration.
Perhaps doing so was obnoxious. Perhaps I should have just appreciated being a silent witness. But I was so caught up in the moment—so incredibly moved—that my hands came together before my conscious mind caught on. And I’m sincerely grateful they did, because what happened next inspired the words you’re reading now.
The elderly couple slowly walked over to me with smiles on their faces. “Thank you for the applause,” the woman chuckled.
“Thank YOU,” I immediately replied. “You two dancing gives me hope.”
They both smiled even wider as they looked at me. “Us dancing gives me hope too,” the woman said as she grabbed the man’s hand. “But what you probably don’t realize is that you just witnessed the power and beauty of second and third chances.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My college sweetheart—my husband of 20 years—lost his life to cancer on my 40th birthday,” she explained. “And then my husband of 6 years died in a car accident when I was 52.”
As my mouth hung open, we all shared a quick moment of silence. Then the man put his arm around her and said, “And I lost my wife of 33 years when I was 54. So what you see here before you—these dancing partners—this incredible love—this marriage of only 3 years between two kindred souls in their late 60’s . . . all of this is what happens when you give yourself a second and third chance.”
Finding Peace Through Painful Experiences
I’ve spent the rest of the day thinking about that beautiful couple, about second and third chances, and about how human beings find the motivation to keep going . . . to keep loving . . . to keep living, despite the pain and grief and hopelessness we all inevitably experience along the way.
And this topic hits close to home too.
About a decade ago, in a relatively short time-frame, Angel and I dealt with several significant, unexpected losses and life changes, back-to-back:
- Losing a sibling to suicide
- Losing a mutual best friend to cardiac arrest
- Financial unrest and loss of livelihood following a breadwinning job loss
- Breaking ties with a loved one who repeatedly betrayed us
- Family business failure (and reinvention)
Those experiences were brutal. And enduring them in quick succession knocked us down and off course for a period of time. For example, when Angel’s brother passed, facing this reality while supporting her grieving family was incredibly painful at times. There were moments when we shut the world out and avoided our loved ones who were grieving alongside us. We didn’t want to deal with the pain, so we coped by running away, by finding ways to numb ourselves with alcohol and unhealthy distractions. And consequently, we grew physically ill while the pain continued to fester inside us.
We felt terrible, for far too long.
And getting to the right state of mind—one that actually allowed us to physically and emotionally move forward again—required diligent practice. Because you better believe our minds were buried deep in the gutter. We had to learn to consciously free our minds, so we could think straight and open ourselves to the next step.
We learned that when you face struggles with an attitude of openness—open to the painful feelings and emotions you have—it’s not comfortable, but you can still be fine and you can still step forward. Openness means you don’t instantly decide that you know this is only going to be a horrible experience—it means you admit that you don’t really know what the next step will be like, and you’d like to understand the whole truth of the matter. It’s a learning stance, instead of one that assumes the worst.
The simplest way to initiate this mindset shift?
Proactive daily reminders…
Mantras for Finding Motivation in Hard Times
It’s all about keeping the right thoughts at the top of your mind, so they’re readily available when you need them most. For us, that meant sitting down quietly with ourselves every morning (and on evenings sometimes too) and reflecting on precisely what we needed to remember. We used short written reminders (now excerpts from our book and blog archive) like the ones below to do just that. Sometimes we’d call them mantras, or affirmations, or prayers, or convictions, but in any case these daily reflections kept us motivated and on track by keeping grounded, peaceful, productive thoughts at the top of our minds, even when life got utterly chaotic.
We ultimately discovered that peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard realities to deal with—peace means to be in the midst of all those things while remaining calm in your head and strong in your heart.
Challenge yourself to choose one of the bolded reminders below every morning (or evening), and then sit quietly for two minutes while repeating it silently in your mind like a mantra. See how doing so gradually changes the way you navigate life’s twists and turns and hard times.
- Never assume that you are stuck with the way things are right now. Life changes every single second, and so can you. – When hard times hit there’s a tendency to extrapolate and assume the future holds more of the same. For some strange reason this doesn’t happen as much when things are going well. A laugh, a smile, and a warm fuzzy feeling are fleeting and we know it. We take the good times at face value in the moment for all they’re worth and then we let them go. But when we’re depressed, struggling, or fearful, it’s easy to heap on more pain by assuming tomorrow will be exactly like today. This is a cyclical, self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t allow yourself to move past what happened, what was said, what was felt, you will look at your future through that same dirty lens, and nothing will be able to focus your foggy judgment. You will keep on justifying, reliving, and fueling a perception that is worn out and false.
- It is what it is. Accept it, learn from it, and grow from it. It doesn’t matter what’s been done; what truly matters is what you do from here. – Realize that most people make themselves miserable simply by finding it impossible to accept life just as it is presenting itself right now. Don’t be one of them. Let go of your fantasies. This letting go doesn’t mean you don’t care about something or someone anymore. It’s just realizing that the only thing you really have control over is yourself in this moment. Oftentimes letting go is simply changing the labels you place on a situation—it’s looking at the same situation with fresh eyes and an open mind, and then taking the next step.
- Use pain, frustration and inconvenience to motivate you rather than annoy you. You are in control of the way you look at life. – Instead of getting angry, find the lesson. In place of envy, feel admiration. In place of worry, take action. In place of doubt, have faith. Again, your response is always more powerful than your circumstance. A tiny part of your life is decided by completely uncontrollable circumstances, while the vast majority of your life is decided by your responses. Where you ultimately end up is heavily dependent on how you play the hands you’ve been dealt.
- The most effective way to move away from something you don’t want, is to move toward something you do want, gradually and consistently. – The key is in building small daily rituals, and understanding that what you do in small steps on a daily basis changes everything over time. This concept might seem obvious, but when hard times hit we tend to yearn for instant gratification. We want things to get better, and we want it better now! And this yearning often tricks us into biting off more than we can chew. Angel and I have seen this transpire hundreds of times over the years—a course student wants to achieve a new milestone as fast as possible, and can’t choose just one or two small daily habits to focus on, so nothing worthwhile ever gets done. Let this be your reminder. Remind yourself that you can’t lift a thousand pounds all at once, yet you can easily lift one pound a thousand times. Small, repeated, incremental efforts will get you there. (Angel and I build small, life-changing rituals with our students in the “Goals & Growth” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
- Effort is never wasted, even when it leads to disappointing results. For it always makes you stronger, more educated, and more experienced. – So when the going gets tough, be patient and keep going. Just because you are struggling does not mean you are failing. Every great success requires some kind of struggle to get there. Again, it happens one day at a time, one step at a time. And the next step is always worth taking. Seriously, no matter what happens, no matter how far you seem to be away from where you want to be, never stop believing that you will make it. Have an unrelenting belief that things will work out, that the long road has a purpose, that the things you desire may not happen today, but they will happen. Practice patience. And remember that patience is not about waiting—it’s the ability to keep a good attitude while working diligently to make daily progress.
- Don’t lower your standards, but do remember that removing your expectations of others is the best way to avoid being derailed by them. – As you strive to make progress, you will inevitably encounter road blocks in the form of difficult people. But realize that the greatest stress you go through when dealing with a difficult person is not fueled by the words or actions of this person—it is fueled by your mind that gives their words and actions importance. Inner peace and harmony begins the moment you take a deep breath and choose not to allow outside influences to dominate your thoughts, emotions, and actions. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Relationships” chapter of our book.)
- As you age, you’ll learn to value your time, genuine relationships, meaningful work, and peace of mind, much more. Little else will matter. – Remember this, especially when the going gets chaotic and tough. Focus on what matters in each moment and let go of what does not. Eliminate needless distractions. Realize that too often we focus our worried minds on how to do things quickly, when the vast majority of things we do quickly should not be done at all. We end up rushing out on another shopping trip, or hastily dressing ourselves up to impress, just to feel better. But these quick fixes don’t work. Stop investing so much of your energy into refining the wrong areas of your life. Ten years from now it won’t really matter what shoes you wore today, how your hair looked, or what brand of clothes you wore. What will matter is how you lived, how you loved, and what you learned along the way.
Afterthoughts… On Deep Loss & Renewal
Before we go I want to briefly address the biggest elephant in the room. That elephant is losing someone you love. The elderly couple in the opening story lived through this kind of loss. Angel and I have lived through this kind of loss. And although there are no words to make it easier, I want those who are presently coping with this kind of loss to know that the journey forward is worth it. The end is always the beginning. There’s more beauty—a different kind of beauty—ahead.
You see, death is an ending, which is a necessary part of living. And even though endings like these often seem ugly, they are necessary for beauty too—otherwise it’s impossible to appreciate someone or something, because they are unlimited. Limits illuminate beauty, and death is the definitive limit—a reminder that we need to be aware of this beautiful person, and appreciate this beautiful thing called life. Death is also a beginning, because while we have lost someone special, this ending, like the loss of any wonderful life situation, is a moment of reinvention. Although deeply sad, their passing forces us to reinvent our lives, and in this reinvention is an opportunity to experience beauty in new, unseen ways and places. And finally, of course, death is an opportunity to celebrate a person’s life, and to be grateful for the beauty they showed us.
That’s just a small slice of what living through deep loss has taught us.
Just a short piece of a longer story that’s still being written . . .
A story of second and third chances, renewed hope, and heartfelt dances.
And the reminders above will get you there, one day at a time.
Before you go, let me ask you a quick question:
- Which point above resonates the most with you right now?
And how might reminding yourself of it, daily, change your life?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Also, our next annual Think Better, Live Better conference is taking place February 10-11, 2018 in San Diego. Four discounted early bird tickets are still available today (while they last).