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When Things Don’t Work Out: Who Knows If It’s Good or Bad?

Good or bad

“It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean.” ~Tony Robbins

I recently received a rejection letter for a voluntary role befriending and supporting a child in the care system. I was excited at the prospect of supporting a child who had likely been through a lot, and had been quietly confident that I would be great in the role.

After all, I am an emotionally responsible, fun-loving, deeply caring adult who had lived through a ton of difficulty: addiction and alcoholism (my own and my mother’s); growing up in a single parent household; not meeting my biological dad properly until I was fourteen years old; self-harm, self-hatred, and overwhelming, toxic shame, which I have transformed into courage, confidence, and a powerful calling to be of service to others.

I felt my stomach knot up as I read, “Some of the information you share online could be confusing for a child and might be inappropriate for their age and understanding. We have therefore regretfully decided that we will not be able to accept your application for this role.”

First I was disappointed, and then I was angry.

I was angry with myself and my stupid, “too-much” honesty, angry with the articles I’ve written that have gone viral in the past, leaving me with a permanent digital fingerprint, angry with the system and its red tape and bureaucracy, angry that anyone can have their own baby but in order to support one that is in the care system, you need to be bland, opaque, and un-googleable.

Then, the wave of shame came—shame that I have shared so transparently over the years, shame that anyone can google me and can find so much… stuff.

Next came the fear: the letter raised doubts and questions about how transparent and vulnerable it is safe to be. I noticed my mind race with fears about whether I would ever get a voluntary position or job working with children/vulnerable adults again.

And then (finally!), some understanding and acceptance.

The recruiters are simply doing what they consider is best for the child.

I wrote my application in full integrity, so if it’s not happening, perhaps it is not meant to be.

It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m okay.

I remembered the fable of the wise farmer. Here is my own version of it:

There was once a wise farmer, who, with his wife, had a small piece of land and one horse. One day, the horse managed to jump the fence and ran away to freedom.

The farmer’s nosy neighbor sidled up to the fence, leaned on it conspiratorially, tutting and shaking his head. “You had just one horse,” said the neighbor, “and now he’s gone. Such bad luck!”

The wise farmer nodded slowly, taking in his neighbor’s words. “Well, who knows if it’s good or bad?”

The next day, the wise farmer’s horse miraculously reappeared, except that he wasn’t alone: in tow was a second, wild horse.

The neighbor hurried over excitedly, jabbering away. “You had one horse, then you lost it, and now you have two! This is such good luck!”

The farmer smiled sagely before replying, “Who knows if it’s good or bad?”

The following day, the farmer’s only son took on the job of breaking in the wild horse. The horse bucked, throwing the son to the ground. His leg was well and truly broken.

“Tut, tut, tut,” the neighbor muttered in dismay, “What a week! You lose a horse, get it back, gain an extra horse and now your only son, your only help on the farm, is injured! This is such terrible, terrible luck.”

Once again the wise farmer shrugged his shoulders, utterly non-committal. “Who knows if it’s good or bad?”

A week later, the army marched through town, conscripting all and any young men for military duty. The farmer’s son, in a cast and on crutches, was not required to go to war. The neighbor exhaled in relief upon hearing the news. “Oh, what good luck for you and your family! Your son doesn’t have to go to war! Such good luck.”

Of course, the farmer responded in only the way he could…

“Who knows if it’s good or bad?”

I’m not about to suggest that when we see injustice, abuse, or evil in the world, we pretend that it doesn’t matter, or use the “Who knows if it’s good or bad?” line as an excuse for apathy. That would be a gross misinterpretation of the message of this story, which is really, in its essence, a teaching about curiosity and remembering that in the grand scheme of things, we really don’t know what anything truly means.

The wise farmer in the fable may have had emotions and stories running in his head in response to each unfolding event (although he does appear to be very close to enlightenment if you ask me!), but he kept a truly open mind and consistently responded with curiosity, reminding himself and his drama-addicted neighbor that nobody truly knows what anything actually “means.”

Since there is never really a finishing line (even death doesn’t necessarily stop the ripple effects), we can’t really declare that something was definitely good or bad. It is always unfolding.

How many lawsuits are filed years after an actual event has taken place?

How many terrible events have borne something beautiful and vital to our world?

How many losses have led to triumphs?

And how many triumphs have led to losses?

The self-study metaphysical text A Course In Miracles guides the student to practice acknowledging that “Nothing I see means anything” and that “I give everything I see all the meaning it has for me.”

It challenges the reader to detach from playing God and from constantly interpreting and attaching meaning to every single thing that happens, to remember that we are always only seeing a tiny aspect of the vast tapestry that is being woven throughout our lifetime.

Detachment from meaning-making doesn’t mean leap-frogging over difficult emotions. In fact, I believe we are called to do the exact opposite, as hard and uncomfortable as that can be—to lean in and feel it all.

When I got the rejection letter, I allowed myself to feel the anger, disappointment, shame, judgment and sadness. I gave myself permission to feel and process what came up for me—for a while, anyway.

Then, at some point, the time came for inner vigilance, for deliberately and consciously choosing to practice curiosity and release control of needing to make anyone right or wrong.

I believe we are all called to do this deep inner work. Not all of us answer the call, of course, because it’s uncomfortable. Our brains are wired for certainty, which makes the practice of leaning into uncertainty and curiosity spiritual black belt stuff. It goes against our inbuilt survival instinct that wants to have it all figured out.

Deeply surrendering, practicing humility, and being willing to sit in the uncertainty of really not knowing what is going on, while also having faith that it might just be a friendly universe, are acts full of power.

This work isn’t easy, but it’s so important.

It is vital to tame the scared monkey mind that panics at the slightest hint of uncertainty and tries desperately to figure out what on earth is going on.

It is critical to become conscious of the story and the meaning your mind wants to create, to allow yourself to feel the emotion that is present, and then to choose to commit to the hardcore inner work of remembering that you don’t really know what the outcome of any situation in your life will be.

For me, it turns out that I will not be befriending a child in the care system anytime soon. This situation was a powerful reminder that I simply am not in charge. It has prompted me to ask some big questions about how vulnerable and transparent I want to continue to be online, to make a choice about whether I will continue to write and speak about uncomfortable topics, even if it means the loss of certain options.

Who knows if what happened is good or bad. I certainly don’t. I can either roar at the universe about the injustice of this, or I can take a deep breath and acknowledge that I don’t really know what this is for.

Perhaps one day I will look back and think, “Ah, that’s the gift that came out of this situation.”

But for now, we only have today. And so today, I wish you a day full of conscious, genuine curiosity.

Because when trying to figure out if what is unfolding in your life right now is good or bad, the only thing we can say for certain is that more will always be revealed.

Profile photo of Elloa Atkinson

About Elloa Atkinson

Elloa Atkinson is a transformational coach, writer, and teacher who is fascinated by somewhat uncomfortable topics such as vulnerability, shame, emotional responsibility, and how to become fully expressed and alive—a psychological grown up as well as a chronological one. She lives in Sussex with her husband Nige and their rescue dog, Molly Miracle. Visit elloaatkinson.com

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