My father-in-law, Don Harris, had many sayings about life. One of his favorites was, “Trials and tribulations are mandatory; misery is optional.” He also liked to say, “Reality is for real.” Everyone’s life is filled with problems, some large, some small. As Forrest Gump would say, “It happens,” even when we don’t deserve it. And sometimes we turn small problems into large ones all by ourselves. It’s not avoiding trials that make us stronger; it’s what we do with the trials we face. As Henry Ward Beecher once said, “A cobweb is as good as the mightiest cable when there is no strain upon it.” So appreciate your problems. They are mandatory in this life. But misery is not. As the old sayings go, instead of crying over spilt milk, adopt the philosophy that a smile is a curve that will straighten out almost anything. Victor Frankl said it this way, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” Nietzche boiled it down to this: “He who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW.”
But effectively facing our challenges is not always easy to do. When it comes to dealing with the potholes of life’s highway, here are some great lessons I have learned from watching movies.
- Life is hard but we can do hard things. The movie, Unbroken,* tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, who survives 47 days in a raft after his plane is shot down during World War II, only to be caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, where he faces atrocity after atrocity inflicted by a sadistic Japanese officer. In this scene, Zamperini is first beaten by the Japanese officer, who then forces each of the other POWs to punch Zamperini in the face.
Like Zamperini, each of us has an amazing capacity to do hard things when we have to. If you think back over your own life, you’ll probably remember a time or two when, at the time, you were sure you couldn’t take any more, but somehow you did.
- Don’t say, “Why me? Say, “Why not me? Soul Surfer** is the true story of 13 year-old Bethany Hamilton, a champion surfer who is attacked by a shark and loses her left arm. She must re-learn everything using only one arm. In this scene, she wonders why her life had to change so radically. “Why me?” is a question we often ask when things go wrong:
When bad things happen to me or my family, I try to find someone else who is struggling with something much harder than what I’m facing. And that someone is usually pretty easy to find. Looking at others has at least two important effects. First, it helps me be grateful that my challenge is not worse than it is. I realize I can handle my own challenge much easier than I can handle someone else’s. So instead of asking why is this happening to me, I tell myself, well, why not me; this is a challenge I can deal with. Second, and perhaps more important, seeing others with challenges helps me focus on helping them rather than feeling sorry for myself.
- Use adversity as a chance to reassess and start over. Facing challenges usually brings along with it some kind of change – a change in a relationship, a new physical or mental challenge, or perhaps the loss of a job. Up in the Air*** is a movie about a group of consultants who are hired to do the dirty work of downsizing corporations – firing employees. In this scene, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) gives us some great advice about how to turn a job loss into something positive (sorry about the language):
- Focus on the big picture. In the original Karate Kid,**** Daniel, to protect himself from the local bullies, begins to learn karate from his teacher, Mr. Miyagi. But rather than practice karate, Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel do chores around his house. He first must wash and wax all of Mr. Miyagi’s classic cars. Then he must sand his floors, stain the fence and paint his house. In frustration, Daniel complains to Mr. Miyagi, who then shows Daniel what has really been happening in this classic scene from the movie:
Like Daniel, we often see only the trial, task or problem right in front of us. It’s like a huge boulder is placed right in front of our eyes that we can’t see around. But by somehow finding the broader perspective, we realize we are gaining strength and learning skills that will help us later in life. Daniel finally realizes the tasks Mr. Miyagi has him do are not just work, but by doing them, he is learning all the major defensive moves of karate. In Soul Surfer, Bethany relies on guts and God to learn to surf again, and even competes in the national surfing championships. But more importantly, over time, she gains perspective. She realizes she can help others who are facing their own great challenges, concluding, “Surfing isn’t the most important thing in life. Love is. I’ve had the chance to embrace more people with one arm than I ever could with two.” So look for the big picture, but remember TTT (things take time). It may be years or even an entire lifetime before we develop the proper perspective about our experiences.
- Don’t try to go it alone. Louis Zamperini had his fellow POWs. Bethany had her family and God. Daniel had Mr. Miyagi. Each had someone to help them through their challenges. Burdens are lighter when there is someone sharing them. In Me Before You,***** Lou Clarke is hired by the family of Will Traynor, who, after a tragic accident, is a quadriplegic and has lost his will to live. Although she starts out as just an employee of Will’s family, her effervescent personally turns Lou’s and Will’s relationship from simple caregiver, to friends, to love, to the point where Will almost feels normal again. Will sums up their relationship by saying, “You are pretty much the only thing that makes me wanna get up in the morning.” Here is one of my favorite scenes:
The miserable, like misery, loves company. When life is getting us down, let’s find a teacher, a friend, a lover, and even God to share the burden. Better yet, let’s be that teacher, friend or lover who is willing to help bear others’ burdens. And remember my father-in-law’s motto for life: Smile always, except when laughing.
Production: 3 Arts Entertainment, Jolie Pas, and legendary Entertainment
Directed: Angelina Jolie
Screenplay: Joel Cohen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, and Domhnall Gleeson
Release Date: December 25, 2014
Production: Enticing Entertainment, Island Film Group and Brookwell-McNamara Entertainment
Directed: Sean McNamara
Screenplay: Sean McNamara and Deborah Schwartz
Starring: AnnaSophia Roob, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt
Release Date: April 8, 2011
***Up in the Air
Production: Paramount Pictures, Cold Spring Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures
Directed: Jason Reitmann
Screenplay: Jason Reitmann (based on the novel by Walter Kirn)
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick
Release Date: December 23, 2009
Production: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Jerry Weintraub Productions and Delphi Films
Directed: John g. Avildsen
Screenplay: Robert Mark Kamen
Starring: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita and Elizabeth Shue
Release Date: June 22, 1984
*****Me Before You
Production: MGM, New Line Cinema, Sunswept Entertainment
Directed: Thea Sharrock
Screenplay: Jojo Moyes
Starring: Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin
Release Date: June 3, 2016