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Death In Yellowstone: Adjusting To The Impermanence Of Life
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When I was vacationing in Yellowstone, it was reported in the news that there had been a bear attack on a married couple. While hiking, the man and woman unwittingly got in between a mother bear and her cub. They were both attacked; the husband was killed and his wife barely survived with multiple injuries. This was the first time something of this nature had happened in over 25 years. Additionally, while I was there, I visited many geysers and hot springs and I noticed that there were numerous signs posted warning people to be careful. The signs stated that if you strayed from the path, you risked falling into one and dying. These signs had been paid for by a foundation set up by the family of a 9-year-old boy who had strayed off the path, fallen into one of the hot springs, and died. These, of course, are both very sad stories.
How do these stories of death in Yellowstone relate to happiness? Let us examine the concept of impermanence. Life is impermanent; nothing stays the same. We can be happily married, enjoying a romantic hike, and our spouse can be killed by a grizzly bear. We can be on vacation with our family and our child could fall into a hot spring and die. I know these are extreme cases, but this sort of thing does occur. Nothing stays the same in life! Life is bound to change. Life is impermanent. If we try to make life stay the same, we are going to suffer.
We all know people who have experienced tragedy in their lives. Someone reading this right now may be going through a terribly hard or tragic time. Life isn’t permanent, life changes; sometimes these changes are good, but sometimes they are very painful. If we don’t learn to roll with life, to adjust to the constant changes, then we are going to suffer. Impermanence is an absolute guarantee in life. No matter what is happening in our lives right now, it’s going to change. Along life’s journey, we will experience many, many changes. A large number of us are going to get divorced. Currently in America, the divorce rate is nearly 50%. Many of us will develop some type of cancer, heart disease, or other illness. We’re going to get fired, our jobs are going to be downsized, our company will close, or something else will occur that will cause us to change jobs. In fact, many of us will be re-trained and start all over on an entirely new career path. The average person in the United States will have six different jobs over the course of a lifetime. Life is change. Life is impermanent.
If I have successfully convinced you that there are going to be changes in your life, then you must recognize that there are really only two choices regarding how to address them. One choice is good for us and the other choice is very bad for us. Let’s begin by perceiving life’s changes as wounds. From time to time in life, we may get a small wound or cut. We can wash and treat the cut and let it mend. Doing so may be a bit painful, but it will result in a healthy healing process. Or, we can simply take pain killers. The deeper and more intense the cut is, the stronger the pain killers will have to be. We can go on blissfully with our lives, not feeling our cut. However, if we do this, the cut will surely get infected, continue to get worse, turn into gangrene, and kill us. Ultimately, life is like this example when it comes to impermanence and change. Unfortunately, most of us turn to pain killers instead of washing out that wound, dealing with that change, and moving on.
Since many of us will or already have experienced the pain of a divorce, I’ll use this topic to illustrate another example. We’re newly married and we’re so excited by so many dreams, so many expectations of what life with our partner will bring. And then things don’t exactly turn out the way we hoped. We find ourselves single again, perhaps having to raise children by ourselves, bogged down by financial stress and a myriad of worries. We must understand that life is impermanent and we need to adjust to its changes. To adjust to life’s changes in a healthy way, we must allow ourselves to feel our feelings, get involved with support groups, talk to people, seek therapy, and really deal with the sadness and anger of the divorce. Once we do so, we will feel better and we will be able to heal and move on. We can do well when life presents a change, even when the change is tragic, as long as we are willing to adjust to the change, feel it, and then move forward. However, many of us turn to the pain killers instead of really dealing with our feelings. Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of “pain killers” to which we can turn toward. Perhaps after the divorce we start drinking, and this drinking becomes a habit, which then turns into an addiction. We might ask a doctor for a prescription drug that takes away our anxiety, our stress, and our depression. We all understand alcohol or drug related addictions, but there are other, more subtle ones. We throw ourselves into our work, or we become addicted to television, barely leaving the couch. We immediately dive into another relationship, putting all of our time and effort and feeling into it, thinking that this will fix us somehow. We start eating excessively, turning to food for comfort. The list of what we can do instead of truly dealing with life’s impermanence and changes in a healthy way is infinite.
Most of us don’t adjust well to life’s impermanence. We fight it, we resist it, and we use pain killers as a way to deal with it. But if we realize at a deep level that life is impermanent and that there’s nothing we can do to get around this fact, we truly will be better off. Even if we don’t get divorced, even if we stay healthy, there are an infinite number of things that can rock our worlds and upset us. We must flow with things, adjust to change well, and realize, Nothing that I have in this world, not even my child, is a guarantee. My child can be taken from me. Just as the family who lost their child at Yellowstone, pain and tragedy can be turned into something wonderful and something that can help others. The Yellowstone family is proof that we can adjust to anything and still find beauty and meaning in life.
Let me offer yet another example. Perhaps when we were in high school, we expected to attend college, get good grades, graduate, and get a great job. Perhaps what happened instead is that we didn’t adjust to our newfound freedom and we partied too much and mismanaged our time to such a great extent that we had to drop out and get a job. This doesn’t mean we have to numb ourselves to change. Life is change and change happens to everyone. We need to feel, adjust, and then make the most of what life has given us. Wallowing in self-blame won’t help. Yes, we may have been the cause of the change, but blaming ourselves won’t help us to adjust and accept the change. I actually know people who are in prison who are very spiritual and have made the most out of a life sentence. We can adjust to anything as long as we are willing to let go of our belief that life has to go a certain way. If we fight life, it will be very tough and we will most likely turn to addictions to shut off our pain. However, if we flow with life, then life will proceed much better and we will be much healthier in the end.
Let’s do this: let’s promise that no matter what life has thrown at us or will throw at us, we will adjust. We won’t be self-critical, we won’t stay stuck. We’ll feel the feelings of loss and sadness, and then we’ll move on and make the most of our lives with what we have. When we adapt to change, life will go much better; when we numb it, life will be more difficult in the long run. We must choose to adapt, because doing so will facilitate a beautiful, full life.
Dr. Robert Puff, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, international speaker, and happiness expert who has been counseling individuals, families, nonprofits, and businesses for over twenty years in Newport Beach, Newport Coast, Laguna Beach, Irvine, Corona del Mar and Huntington Beach.
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