We can choose the way we respond to the circumstances of our lives.
By Ben Cooley
If it’s true that your past can either define you or refine you, what determines which way it goes? We have found that it depends on the person’s choice. It’s been said that no one can offend you without your permission, and I believe that’s true. No one can destroy your life and leave you emotionally paralyzed without your participation. The one who decides whether a tragedy gets the better of you or becomes a stepping-stone to your growth is … you.
Those who see setbacks as springboards end up going places they would previously never have dreamed of going, all because of great tragedy. For us it is incredibly exciting to see traumatized people realizing this on the different front lines around the world. People harmed by war, conflict, abuse, rape, torture, injustice and trafficking are grasping that they don’t have to let what has been done to them define the rest of their lives.
We are equally passionate about taking this sort of frontline psychology back to the home front. Uganda and Iraq are not the only places where people are traumatized. Sometimes we can look over our neighbor’s fence or listen through the wall to the apartment next door, and it sounds like a war zone there too. No matter where the abuse or disaster takes place, we all need to learn these life lessons.
When something terrible is done to us, of course healing must happen. And though we don’t understand it in these terms at the time, being the receiver of trauma gives us both a responsibility and an opportunity. We have the responsibility of choosing whether we are going to turn inward and become stuck and bitter and see our entire identity as a victim or we’re going to let the trauma teach us and cause us to grow.
When we take responsibility and refuse to succumb to self-pity, a great, yawning opportunity opens before us like the mouth of an enormous natural cavern. The person whose identity becomes that of a victim will never find that cavern. Responsibility brings remarkable opportunity.
The only qualification you need to have in order to be marginalized, betrayed, hard done by (or treated badly), offended or victimized is simply to be born. Everyone goes through hardships. It’s not if, but when. It’s not Why me? but What took it so long? But we don’t have to stay in the posture of a victim.
Case in point is Joseph from the Old Testament. Joseph was betrayed and sold into slavery by his own brothers. He was purchased by an Egyptian and worked faithfully, but then was betrayed by his boss’ wife—for the “crime” of not being immoral. He was sent to prison unjustly. While in prison, he interpreted dreams for prisoners and asked that one remember him when he was released. But that man completely forgot about Joseph (see Gen. 37, 39–40).
Joseph’s betrayals and hardships came one after the other. But you never get the sense that he was sitting back in his cell feeling sorry for himself. He used each setback as a learning opportunity to forge his leadership. If it hadn’t been for those hardships, he never would have been able to oversee and lead the nation when he finally did get out of prison.
How do we use the setbacks in our lives? If we can see them more as step-ups than setbacks, we will be well served. Each hardship, each tragedy, is an opportunity to choose whether to get smaller or to get larger. To let it kill us or to let it make us stronger.
THE RESPONSIBILITY AND OPPORTUNITY FOR HEALTHY THINKING
I believe healthy thinking looks very different from how people think it looks. My observation is that people see healthy thinking as positive thinking. We’re living in the age of self-affirmation and your best life now. But some of that can be quite unhealthy thinking, in my view. True healthy thinking goes so much deeper than just positive thinking.
In my opinion, healthy thinking is intentional thinking. I love this Bible passage:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things.” —Philippians 4:6–8
The writer, Paul, laid out this pathway for us. It starts with not being anxious, and it ends with meditating on what is right, pure and good. That’s not just positive thinking—it’s intentional, disciplined thinking. Healthy thinking is less about being positive and more about being intentional. And that requires autonomy.
Autonomy, in my mind, is basically taking responsibility. It’s the opposite of blaming. It’s the opposite of a victim mindset. Autonomy sees the opportunity within responsibility and says, “I’m not only grateful for the opportunities I have; I’m also going to seize my power and go make the life I wish to have.”
Some people say that social media is unhealthy from a psychological or emotional perspective, but I disagree. It can be unhealthy, but it’s not necessarily so. Just because someone posts something good doesn’t mean you have to go into depression about it. It’s not about what someone posts but about how secure we are on the inside.
We could look at a post and think, Well, praise the Lord! How wonderful that this person is sharing their highlights. Each one is a testimony to God’s goodness in their life! Someone else could look at the same post and think, I’m jealous about that. They don’t deserve that. How dare they? It’s just a reminder that I’m not good enough. I wish I had that wife or that car or that job. Social media isn’t healthy or unhealthy. What’s healthy or unhealthy is your thinking and your feelings about yourself.
The person with healthy thinking thinks, Wow, I do want a car and a job and a wife like that. And I know I can have the things I want. I have the opportunity to take responsibility for what I want and start working toward it.
People with autonomy realize that the gray matter between their ears is the most valuable asset they have, and improving it is the best investment they could possibly make. Those people think, If I harness this asset I’ve been given, I can be hope filled. I can look forward to a great tomorrow.
But most people in our society today don’t have autonomy. They’d rather blame and be victims. They’d rather think, I am being marginalized. I’m being hard done by. It doesn’t take much to get offended these days. Everybody’s a victim.
A sense of entitlement always follows the victim mindset: I deserve more! Which usually leads to self-indulgence, which in turn leads to self-deception and broken relationships—which end up reinforcing the feeling of being a victim. It’s just a downward spiral.
It’s within your power, you know. You’re choosing, one way or the other. Why not choose to take responsibility and stop the blaming?
WHEN THINGS GET DIFFICULT
In my line of work, I deal with the darkest parts of humanity. I talk with people who have been victimized in the most tragic, brutal ways humankind can devise. Of course, there is deep healing that has to take place, and we have many ways to move in that direction. But for most of us, a surprisingly important part of “keeping on with a hard row to hoe” is maintaining healthy habits.
A simple way to maintain healthy habits is to remember the five R words: renew, rage, relate, revive and restore.
Renew. I’ve heard it said that leaders are readers. But I disagree, mainly because I prefer audiobooks over reading. I’d say leaders are learners. We must renew our minds on an ongoing basis, like Romans 12:2 says: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Often we misinterpret that and think, OK, I’ll just snap out of this and think positively. No, it’s a daily discipline to keep learning and to keep renewing our minds.
Rage. We have to rage for our souls. We have to make very sure we’re not growing weary in our souls, because that’s when people fall morally. So we want to go out and have intentional fun. Good, healthy fun as opposed to the unhealthy variety.
Relate. We must be intentional about relating well. That’s why we must prioritize relationships and family over finance.
Revive. It’s important that we revive our spirits by spending time with God. Billy Graham, toward the end of his life, was asked whether he would change anything if he could do it all over again. He said, “I would pray more, travel less.” That’s killing me right now because I’m still traveling way too much. We need to revive our spirits and make sure there’s discipline there.
Restore. The final discipline is to restore our bodies. I once heard of a famous Scottish pastor from the 1800s who, on his deathbed and speaking of his failing body, said, “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.” We want to make sure we don’t do that.
Here are four more R words for healthy living: run, raw, rest and reflect.
Run. Take care of your body. Exercise restores your energy. If you’re doing big things, you need your body to be healthy.
Raw. Eat raw food. If you want to go to the moon, only rocket fuel will do.
Rest. Rest well. Get good sleep. Many leaders do not get enough quality sleep. But if we do recharge the batteries, we’ll be so much more effective.
Reflect. Actually take time to reflect. All too often we’re so busy that we don’t take time to just think—to do nothing else but think, pray or meditate. If you want to have good mental health, take time out to reflect, if for no other reason than to make sure you’re on the right track in your life.
Things will get difficult for everyone. But if you’re maintaining healthy habits, you’ll sail through them more easily and more quickly than those around you who are not doing so.
Excerpted from Relentless Pursuit: Fuel Your Passion and Fulfill Your Mission by Ben Cooley, copyright 2019. Used by permission from David C Cook