When Life (and Relationships) Aren’t What You Hoped (Part 2)

This is the second part of a three-part series on what to do when life or relationships aren’t what you wanted them to be. In last week’s part 1 we started with a challenging but important first step. Today, we explore two more.

I’ve always wished I could draw, paint and do graphic design. I write books and I used to perform in musical theatre so I am not completely bereft of right-brain endeavors! But the drawing and design gene absolutely is not in my DNA. My best efforts are a step below stick figures.

This may sound minor – but it is actually really frustrating for someone whose ministry involves constant work on creative materials.

What about you? Do you find yourself “always wishing” that you were better at something? Or maybe the stakes are higher than a hobby: Maybe health limitations, relationship disappointments or any number of heartaches keep taking life in a direction that isn’t what you hoped.

There’s a grief in that, isn’t there? As we covered last week (please go back to read Part 1 if you missed it), we have to grieve what isn’t and accept what is before we can move forward to enjoy what we have. So, when life isn’t what we wanted, that’s our first action step. Grieving what will never be.

Sometimes this principle doesn’t neatly (or even remotely) apply. For example, if there’s emotional or physical abuse, infidelity, toxicity, or other serious and damaging issues, different rules are in effect: we need boundaries, safety, intervention, and counseling instead.

But for many heartaches and letdowns, there can be abundant life on the other side – and we can be intentional about pursuing it. Last week we covered grief, which, of course, is not a snap-your-fingers-and-everything-is-better process. But grieving can actually be freeing. That’s our aim with the next two steps.

Action #2: Accept what isn’t how we want it to be

If you have ever grieved the loss of someone you love, you know that one of the hardest elements of true grief is an acceptance of finality.

When my team lost our amazing friend and colleague Naomi to a sudden pulmonary embolism, the utter brutality of the grief was knowing that (on this earth at least), we would never see her again. We are so thankful for the reality of heaven. But it was true grief: it’s not like we were holding open the hope that maybe something might change. We had to accept that she was gone.

I need to say here that I’m not a “grief expert.” But in general, it appears that acceptance of things as they are is the core of healthy grief.

There is a model in the counseling world called the Kübler-Ross “Stages of Grief.” Not everyone moves through all five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), or in the same way, pace, or order. But the last stage of Kübler-Ross’s model – acceptance – is one that many in the counseling world agree is often the final stage. Once we accept the reality of what we’ve lost, we can move past our grief and turn our attention to more positive things.

A Personal Example

About six months ago, I ran into an old friend. This person looked amazing, having lost fifty pounds since the last time we had been together. Turns out, the friend had been diagnosed with diabetes, and a doctor had delivered the brutal news that unless the friend’s weight got under control, vision and neuropathy problems were just around the corner. So under a doctor’s care, an extremely tight eating plan commenced.

Because my ongoing cancer treatments have led to significant weight gain, and I was about to start the same process to get back to a healthy weight, I asked, “How did you do it?” My friend looked at me and said, “I had to grieve that I could never have processed sugar again.”

I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. If the context wasn’t my own cancer drug regimen, I might have seen humor in that statement, given that the yummy bread-based carbs I love were part of the problem. (Any fellow donut lovers out there? You’re my people!)

But the context is a cancer drug. And the drug I take every day to prevent cancer from returning not only causes weight gain but also makes weight loss extraordinarily difficult. I hadn’t realized it until my friend said it, but there is grief in permanently setting aside the foods I love.

I know I need to cut them out, permanently, to get healthy and to avoid the inflammatory response that could invite cancer to return. But it is only grieving that, and then accepting it, that opens up space for me to focus my attention on something more positive.

And that leads me to the third action step we can take when life is going a different direction than we hoped.

Action #3: Enjoy what IS

Often, when we move through grief and acceptance, we’re more able to enjoy what we have. I’ve been on my strict eating plan for months now, and I’m still working on grieving and accepting. (The other night at a Mexican restaurant with friends, I was definitely grieving chips and queso!)

But I’ve noticed there are a lot of delightful foods that I do enjoy. I appreciate other flavors now that I have to restrict sugars. When I’m eating a really good chicken salad or a perfectly seasoned roasted cauliflower, I actively appreciate what I can eat. I don’t think I would feel the same way if I was still stuck on sugar deprivation anger! Or offering a clipped “No, thanks for asking, but I cannot have dessert tonight!” to a family member.

Focusing on what is, not what isn’t

Perhaps no group has more cause to understand the power of acceptance, and focusing on what is working, than those who live with chronic pain. I’ve had several friends who have almost constant physical pain. And yet, they are joyful people! HOW?

For years, researchers have been increasingly studying the importance of acceptance, including through a type of therapy called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (ACT). As one example, one group of researchers found that those with chronic pain who went through this acceptance therapy not only had less depression and more social satisfaction, but that they were far more likely to engage in activities despite their ongoing pain. As hard as the pain was, the actions of acceptance had freed them up to enjoy more of life. They focus on what is. Not what isn’t.

That opens up so many possibilities, doesn’t it?

And one final note: A growing body of research is exploring the link between faith and pain. Unsurprisingly, faith may propel us through chronic pain in a positive way. For example, when worship service attendance and spiritual values come into play, one large Canadian study found that chronic pain sufferers experience lower levels of pain and fatigue.

As people of faith, we know that joy comes in the morning. We lean toward belief that the best is yet to come, even if life here can sometimes be really hard.

So now we know the three steps: grief, acceptance, and looking at what we do have. How do we apply those in our everyday life? In our third and final part of this series, we’ll look at one of the most important contexts for applying these steps: our relationships.

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at nowens@shaunti.com.

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