Dr. Justin Hill was an officer in the U.S. Army prior to earning his doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts in 2008. He completed his clinical pre-doctoral Internship and post-doctoral Fellowship training at the VA Boston hospital where he was a Fellow at Harvard Medical... more
A couple of years ago, I was driving on a busy road in the Boston area when a car pulled out right in front of me from a shopping complex parking lot, forcing me to slow down immediately so I didn’t hit him. Naturally, I was initially angered, frustrated and stunned by this sudden event. About a quarter mile down the road I watched this same car slam into the back of another car stopped at a stoplight. Clearly, the driver wasn’t right for some reason – intoxication, medication reaction, overtired, etc. I quickly realized that had he not cut me off by pulling out in front of me, he would have been behind me. I would have been stopped at the light and he would have likely slammed into me. My anger and frustration turned into gratitude and relief (and a little guilt for feeling this way) that I was only cut-off and I wasn’t dealing with a damaged car, insurance, and everything else that comes with car accidents.
It’s amazing how the same incident can elicit different responses as the sequence of events unfolds from moment to moment. It reminds me of the Taoist story of the farmer who worked his crops for many years (for accurate details, this is quoted from http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/zen.html but it can be found anywhere):
“One day the farmer’s horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," said the farmer.”
This is a powerful story because while we are tempted to judge an incident as “good” or “bad” the minute it happens, it can be more helpful to accept the incident as-is without holding on to so much judgment and then simply continue to notice how things play out from there. I have been trying to practice this in my everyday life with more simple, common occurrences. Just the other day the driver in front of me did not speed up to catch the yellow light, forcing me to stop at the red light. My initial thought was “had the driver driven faster, neither of us would be sitting here right now,” which, of course, is based on the presumption that getting somewhere quicker is always better (Am I the only one who thinks this?). I then reminded myself of the farmer, and replied to my own thought with “Maybe.”
Who knows? Maybe stopping at the red light prevented me from getting in an accident a mile down the road. Maybe it was the universe telling me to slow down a bit. On the other hand, maybe it prevented me from pulling up to an accident and helping injured victims of a crash. The point is, we never know what “could have been” because it never happens, yet we often think that what “could have been” would have worked out better than “what is.” Since all we have is “what is,” why not practice making the most of the situation and suspend judgment? It can be humbling and freeing to recognize that often we simply don’t know whether an incident is “good” or “bad,” and it can be a relief to let go of being the one who must make that judgment. Taking this perspective can help reduce stress, as "stress" often lies between "what is" and what we think "should be." It can also open us up to new opportunities in the present, and possibly bring gratitude for what we have at the moment because we are not so focused on what we think we could have had.
Of course, an important disclaimer is to use common sense and factor in your health and safety when practicing this strategy. It would not be helpful for someone in an abusive relationship, for example, to think “maybe this is ok.” If someone is in a boat with a hole in it, literally or metaphorically, simply waiting to see how things unfold rather than acting based on the judgment that “this is unsafe and/or unhealthy” is not recommended.
I find myself thinking of that driver from time to time, wondering how it worked out for him. It’s likely that the incident of slamming into the back of that car was terrible. If he was intoxicated and struggling with addiction, perhaps he was arrested for driving under the influence. However, that incident could have been just the thing to start him on the path to getting the help he needed. These thoughts are then usually followed by “Maybe.”