When You Can’t Change Your Circumstances, Change Yourself

There is an old parable about a boy who was so discouraged by his experiences in school he told his grandfather he wanted to quit. His grandfather filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first, he placed carrots, in the second he placed eggs and the last he placed ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word. In about twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out into a cup. Turning to the boy, he asked, “Tell me, what do you see?” “Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” the boy replied. Then he asked the boy to feel the carrots, which he did and noted that they were soft and mushy. His grandfather then asked him to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, the boy observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked the boy to sip the coffee. He smiled as he tasted the coffee with its rich aroma. The boy asked, “I don’t understand. What does this mean, if anything?”

His grandfather laughed and explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity–boiling water–but each had reacted differently. “Which are you?” the grandfather asked. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the coffee bean, when things are at their worst, your very attitude will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable.”

The moral of the parable is that it is not the experience that matters. What matters is how you interpret and react to the experience.

We are each given a set of experiences in life. The experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. It is how we interpret the experiences that give them meaning. Your interpretations of your experiences shape your beliefs and theories about the world which, in turn, influence the way you live your life. The grandfather’s lesson is that when you can’t change your circumstances, you change yourself.

We automatically interpret all of our experiences without realizing it. Are they good experiences, bad ones, what do they mean and so on? We do this without much thought, if any, to what the interpretations mean. For instance, if someone bumps into you, you wonder why. The event of her bumping into you is neutral in itself. It has no meaning. It’s your interpretation of the bumping that gives it meaning, and this meaning shapes your perception of the experience.

You may interpret the “bump” as an accident or you may feel you are of such little consequence that you’re deliberately unnoticed and bumped around by others. You may fault the architect for the design of the sidewalks or you may feel you are at fault for not being more attentive of others. You may interpret the bump as a deliberate example of feminist aggressiveness, or you may even interpret the bump as her way of flirting with you. Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception.

Think for a moment about Abraham Lincoln who is considered by many the greatest president in the history of the U.S. He could not choose his parents, the immediate circumstances of his upbringing, or the historical epoch of his birth. Modern day psychologists would label his parents as dysfunctional and abusive. He was mocked and ridiculed by his school classmates because he was awkward and gangly and his clothes never fit properly. At age 22, he failed in business, he ran for the state legislature and was defeated, and he tried to start another business and failed again. At age 26, he was rejected by a woman he loved and had a nervous breakdown. At age 33, he married a woman who was found to be mentally unstable, and once more was defeated for Congress. At age 37, he was finally elected to Congress but at age 39 he was once again defeated. He subsequently campaigned for and was defeated for the senate, vice presidency, and again for the senate. At age 51 he was elected president of the U.S.

Lincoln was not born with a positive “can do” attitude. On the contrary, his life is testimony that a positive attitude toward one’s experiences takes considerable effort and practice. Lincoln learned to expect difficulties, and, so was not traumatized and defeated when faced with problems but viewed them as part of the natural course of events. Lincoln learned the harder one works to sustain a positive interpretation, the more one appreciates life.

Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn ones predicament into a human achievement. For those events that were not up to him, it was his own attitude that determined their influence on him. When he was no longer able to change a situation, he changed himself.


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  2. My great grandfather was named Abraham Lincoln (W****), and my father’s middle name was Abraham – all of whom were named in honor of our greatest President (in my eyes, as well), for having never given up – for making the best of bad situations – and, for always keeping his eye on the brass ring. President Lincoln had great empathy for the ill mannered way that fellow humans (slaves) were being treated. He fought against corruption, when he found out about the organized crime that was robbing the gov’t – thereby enacting the False Claims Act, which is still in effect today, and, only in the past couple of decades reintroduced as a means of stopping some of the corruption, and, theft of gov’t services/goods – by charging the offenders with each act in violation of the F.C.A., as well as imposing fines per violation as well, as a means to recoup and come out ahead of the losses (at least that was the goal) – and, though our gov’t has lost sight of this means to serve our country, and, stop some of its greatest offenses (thievery, fraud, waste and abuses) – it is sad to see so few people who even are aware of the F.C.A. at the Federal and State levels of gov’t – except for people like me – who are aware, report such, blow the whistle on such, and, look forward to stopping crimes against humanity, and our country. I am proud to have family who honored their namesakes, and, carried such ways of thinking of others, and, I sure am proud to be an American who still believes in the Pledge of Allegiance, and, am willing to advocate against those who would taint humanity, and, I will stand up to those – head held high, and, look those evil doers in the eye, and admit that I will not tolerate their sins against mankind, or our nation! God Bless Abraham Lincoln, and, God Bless America. Let us keep our heads out of the sand, and, our eyes upward unto the sky and the heavens above – knowing that we have the ability to overcome every obstacle that comes our way. Who can say they don’t have any dysfunction in their families. Nobody’s perfect, but, by golly, we can strive for perfection, as close as is humanly possible, and, achieve things greater than others would give us credit for. We must believe in ourselves, and, what we are capable of…no matter our lot in life. I’m considered totally and permanently disabled, yet I still advocate for a number of organizations, and, come to the aid of individuals, whom I can teach to think outside the square, but only they can choose to climb out of the box! If I can do these things, while resting, and, by remembering that I still have a voice, a phone, a computer – the world’s biggest library at my fingertips, and, the world’s greatest means of reaching the populus – anything is possible – anything can be! 🙂

  3. Incredibly inspirational!
    Does everyone know this?
    For my part, i’ll make sure they have this opportunity! thanks

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