When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” ~ Anonymous
Adversity can befall anyone. Despite our best efforts to keep it at bay, it finds us anyway. We cannot control that. But we can decide how it will impact us.
I first became aware that I had this choice through a story my mother sent me a few years ago. You may have read it – it was emailed widely.
Here is an abbreviated version in my words.
Carrots, eggs, and coffee beans.
A young woman was sharing her problems with her mother. She described how hard things had been, and told her mother that she felt hopeless, frustrated, and disappointed. Her mother listened patiently. Then, she went into her kitchen and beckoned her daughter to follow.
In the kitchen, she filled three pots with water and put them onto the stove to boil. When the water was boiling, she put a carrot into one pot, an egg into another, and ground coffee beans into the third.
Thirty minutes later, she pulled the carrot out and put it into a bowl. She transferred the egg into a second bowl, and ladled coffee into a third. Then she asked her daughter to examine the contents of the bowls.
Which one will you be?
The young woman observed that the hard carrot had turned soft and fell apart easily. The fluid inside the egg had turned hard. And instead of coffee beans, they had coffee. “What does it mean,” the young woman asked.
Her mother explained. Each item had faced the same adversity—boiling water—but each had responded differently. The tough carrot had become weak, and had fallen apart easily. The fluid interior of the egg had become hard and inflexible.
But the coffee beans had done neither. Rather than allow the boiling water to turn them soft or hard, they had turned the boiling water into a fragrant and delicious concoction called coffee.
Then she asked, “in the face of adversity, which one will you be?”
I knew what my answer was.
I had a few painful struggles of my own. I was dealing with them as best as I could. But I wasn’t making real progress. If anything, matters were getting worse. And I was at a loss for what to do.
So I had decided that the only way to deal with my pain was to “toughen up.” To not feel it. To suppress it. And to block it out when it came up. But as a consequence, my insides had started to harden. Like an egg sitting in a pot of boiling water.
As this realization dawned on me, a thunderbolt ripped through my body.
The only option.
It struck me for the first time that my reaction had been harmful. It had hurt me more than it had hurt anyone else. It had suppressed my ability to feel, to connect, and to be human. And, it had done me absolutely no good. I didn’t want to be “tough” any longer.
But I didn’t want to fall apart either! Despite my struggles, I felt that life was precious and beautiful, and that I had a lot to offer. So giving up and turning into goop was not an option either.
The only option that remained was to walk the line between. To try not to swing towards one response or the other. To do what I had to do so that I wouldn’t end up being a rock without feelings, or mushy goop. And, if I could, to turn my struggles into something positive. Like making coffee.
Walking the line.
So I tried to learn to walk that line. Through books, radio shows, pod casts, documentaries, therapy, and anyone or anything that offered their wisdom.
I learned to distinguish between a “response” and a “reaction.” A response came from a choice. A choice made from my awareness of who I wanted to be. And a conscious answer to the facts in front of me. In contrast, a reaction was an unconscious answer to what was happening. There was no awareness, and therefore no space for choice. I practiced reacting less, and responding more.
I also became vigilant about my responses. Whenever I had to respond, I learned to ask myself if I was walking the line, or choosing an extreme reaction. And I tried to walk the line. It took putting my ego away. It took softening up when I wanted to be tough. And toughing up when I wanted to give up. It wasn’t easy. But practice made it easier.
So I made it through those times without turning too hard, or too soft. I tried to walk that line again as I went through my divorce, and came out the other end with almost no scars. And in sharing my stories, I hope I have made some coffee as well.