Like it or not, life presents challenges and setbacks. Thoughtful folks may make plans and take precautions to minimize their occurrence, but there remains much outside our control. A traffic jam precipitated by a roadway accident. A major financial reversal, or simply unanticipated expenses. The unnerving medical diagnosis. The unusually long line at the grocery check-out when you’re already late. Stalled deliverables on an important project. Depending on our response, some challenges can prove beneficial. They may help us grow and/or heighten appreciation for things that we previously took for granted. Some… not so much.

balanced healthThe ancient stoics – Zeno of Citium, Epictetus, Seneca – experimented with “framing” when facing setbacks. They’d consider all of the things that were going well in their lives and treat the setback as a minor inconvenience. They’d imagine how much worse things could be and took comfort that their circumstances weren’t all that bad. They’d frame news with a positive spin – e.g., a 60% survival rate for a disease versus 40% mortality. They’d consider how they’d feel in an hour, a day, a week, or a month and ask themselves: Will this setback really matter to me then?

St. Paul, the great Christian evangelist who organized communities of faith throughout the Near East, took solace in his unshakable faith in God. Though he is revered today, his life was far from easy. He spent a healthy amount of time in prison. And he tells us in a letter to the Corinthians, “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea.” And, to top it off, he regularly dealt with squabbles in the churches that he’d founded.

Yet throughout the full arc of his life experiences, Paul seems neither puffed up by his successes nor undone by his trials and tribulations. Life can beat him about, and he just keeps on keeping on. As he writes to his compatriots in Phillippa:

“I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and having need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” [Philippians 4:10-13]

He speaks to the essence of equanimity – to be in the midst of life’s vicissitudes without whitewashing or sugarcoating them, and without being undone by them. To live in that peaceful place of knowing that it can all be taken in and experienced without fear or defeatism. To stand sure-footed in this world.

I cannot help but think of my husband who is a grand master in equanimity. He brings the capacity for great caring to his community, his work, and his relationships yet remains steady amidst the ups and downs of life. I’ve seen it in matters great and small. A story from our distant past…

We purchased a largish hunk of property in California a few years into our marriage. To control weeds, we opted to blanket the yard with fir bark. And being youthful and frugal, we spread the stuff ourselves. A dump truck arrived and unloaded a HUGE pile of the stuff which created a sizable mountain in our driveway, blocking egress by both our cars. Needless to say, we were highly motivated to get it spread – a task that required filling wheel barrels and carting them down a steep hill to our back yard, dumping the contents, and then spreading the stuff around.

After a few hours of effort, I could find no material evidence that we’d made any dent in the ginormous pile of fir bark. So, in addition to the physical fatigue, my mind starting spinning on: “Oh my gosh. Why did we decide to do this job? We will NEVER get it all spread! We can’t get the cars out to go get food. And I’m so tired. I just can’t do this anymore. What are we going to do?”

Amidst all my suffering, I notice that Spike just keeps spreading fir bark and saying nothing. Pretty soon, his calm demeanor starts to bug me. So, I say: “The pile isn’t getting any smaller. We’ll never finished. Aren’t you upset?” And he replies: “Not really. I just know that I’m going to be spreading fir bark until 5pm, and then I’ll go inside and have a beer.”

Jack Kornfield offers the following:

“Peace comes when our hearts are open as the sky, vast as the ocean. From this place, we choose to care for this moment, this cup of tea, this bowl of food in front of me, this child, this man, this woman, this earth, [this pile of fir bark,] the content of experience with a peaceful heart, knowing that it is all impermanent, not with sorrow, but saying how precious it is that we only get this day once. We only have this moment once.”