“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
While looking up inspirational quotaions for a group I was leading recently, that particular quote spoke to me as I shared it with those in the group. It was attributed to Epictetus, a philosopher who was born in 55 AD.
He penned those words a long time ago, but the truth they convey applies to our lives today.
I see the importance of this truth often in working with people who attempt to overcome trauma. Those who can’t seem to get over what’s been done to them are those who react with bitterness, hatred, or self-pity. Some believe that their traumas are what causes their problems, but the truth is that it’s their reaction causing their unhappiness and mental health issues.
For years I found myself caught in that trap. I believed that harsh experiences from my childhood were the cause of my misery. What I discovered was the truth contained in the above quote. What caused my despair was my reaction–holding on to bitterness instead of forgiving those who had hurt me. This led to self-pity, negativity, and at times self-loathing. (If I had been a better person, then I would not have been mistreated like that.)
As I was contemplating this issue, I thought of a time years ago when I worked as an LPN on an orthopedic ward. There were two patients on my floor that had totally different reactions to what had happened to them. Watching them taught me that we truly do have a choice as to how we react to adversity.
I’ll call patient #1 Mr. Darling. Mr. D entered our hospital after being run over at the construction site where he worked by an inexperienced cement truck driver. He had multiple broken bones and numerous other injuries.
Patient #2, Mr. Woe Is Me came in for surgery on his hip after a fall.
Mr. D. who spent eight months on our ward (this was before rehab centers), brought joy to our floor because of his positive attitude, sense of humor, and encouragement to everyone he came in contact with. I remember going into his room with several other workers when we had to do some kind of treatment, and there would be laughter and lifted spirits all around. How well I recall his warm, loving smile.
This patient faced an uncertain future. He would be permanently disabled—never going back to the contruction work that he loved. He chose to react to his situation with acceptance and making the best of a bad situation. Immediately he forgave the man who had caused the accident, and was even concerned with how the accident might affect him. If I remember right, Mr. D was a believer, but he didn’t talk much about God. Instead he lived a life that showed he knew Him and trusted Him. He had a grateful heart and repeatedly thanked us for every little thing we did for him.
Mr. W was a different story. Going into his room was hard on everyone. He yelled at those taking care of him and never said, “thank you,” no matter how much we tried to please him and make him feel better. He incessently had a “Why me?” attitude as he recovered from his surgery. I remember well the look on his face—a sour I-hate-life and even at times a I-hate-you look. In the time he was in our care, I never saw him smile.
He left long before Mr. D, and I hoped that somehow he would discover the truth that it was his reaction to his situation that was hurting him and bringing on misery.
The day Mr. D was finally able to leave the hospital, I felt joy for the privilege of getting to know him and taking care of him. I can still see him in my mind’s eye walking from his room slowly with his walker to the wheel chair—a man crippled in body but not in his emotional or spiritual life.
I praise God for Mr. D and others–like my Uncle Danny who these days is facing multiple medical issues–who inspire by how they face adversity. I want to be one of those people.
And I don’t want to ever forget that “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
I also don’t want to forget this truth from Scripture: “And Jehovah is a tower for the bruised, A tower for times of adversity.” Psalm 9:9 YLT
“It Is Well” by Kristene DiMarco