There’s a kids’ song called Going on a Bear Hunt about a team of hunters who go out in search of a bear. They come upon a series of increasingly more difficult obstacles – tall grass, a muddy field, a rushing river (the details can change) and, finally, a dark, scary bear cave.
In each case, the hunters “can’t go over it, can’t go under it, we gotta go through it.”
I like to remind myself of this song when I face a challenge, whether it’s a major, profound one – like death of a loved one or divorce – or it’s comparatively minor and transitory – like work stress or becoming an empty nester. There’s no way to bypass the obstacle, so I have to find a way to go through it.
And I have to go through it on a timeline not of my choosing. Just like a cold always lasts longer than you want it to, so does stress, grief, depression, or whatever else has poked its nose into your tent.
You just have to make your peace with it, feel the feelings, and, hopefully, come out the other end wiser, stronger and more resilient.
Afterward, I try to look back and see if there’s anything I could have done to improve the situation. Could I have headed off the problem in the first place or, at the very least, mitigated it? Should I have stood up for myself more forcefully? Is there anything I can do to prepare for the next one?
Sometimes my personal debriefing is productive and helps me change course in the future, sometimes it’s not. But it’s always a worthwhile exercise if only because it helps me process what happened.
When I was in my 20s, my brother (the Halloween devil) passed away. I was a young lawyer in my first job, and, unbelievably, my boss wouldn’t let me leave to be with him in his final days because we were in the middle of a major transaction. I think about that situation a lot and wish I knew then what I know now: that had I left anyway, the chances of my being fired were remote (I was, after all, a workhorse).
I wish I had taken the gamble and gone to say goodbye to my brother, but I was intimidated by the partner I worked for and frightened of losing my job (this was during an economic downturn and I was lucky to have one).
Obviously, I can’t fix that problem, but I have let it inform how I work now, standing up for myself when I have to, standing up for others who can’t stand up for themselves, and trying to be an understanding boss.
Even harder than going through our own hard times is watching our children go through them. I have a friend whose daughter is having a difficult transition as a college freshman. The teary calls from her daughter are brutal and heartbreaking, and my friend wants nothing more than to race to her daughter’s side, fix her problems, and make it all better.
But she knows she can’t because that’s not how life works. Just as we have to go through our own tall grass and dark, scary caves, so do our children.
The hard times are hard, but they make us who we are. And, even more important, they help us appreciate the joy that follows.