To live in a state of wonder and awe; to live with the curiosity of a healthy, inquisitive child; to live as if everything—every experience no matter how peaceful or painful—has a message, a lesson or a gift would be a liberating way to live. This seems like a recipe for living a life full of love, compassion, wisdom and happiness. Dr. Gladys says that life is about learning, growing, and evolving “in response to our experiences. Certainly, we get the most out of life when we extract lessons along the way.” Can we find the humor to say that life has handed us another blankety blank learning experience!
Dr. Gladys, in spite of her own pain and suffering, drove for years with a vanity plate on her car that declared “BE GLAD.” After 102 years of a truly amazing life, she unequivocally states: “Everything is your teacher. When we look for the lessons, we move our attention away from our suffering and direct it back toward life.”
In response to criticism about being perpetually optimistic, Dr. Gladys has said:
Focusing on the positive does not mean denying the negative. It does not mean we dissociate from our pain whether it’s physical or emotional, or pretend that things are okay when they aren’t. Instead, it means we look for what’s wonderful anyway. We allow what hurts to hurt while continuing to search for the lesson in it and be grateful for the teaching.
She does not deny that being optimistic can be a challenging task but encourages resisting the urge to fight. The urge to fight arises from our sympathetic nervous system. Stephen Porges, who has studied the human nervous system and is well known for positing the Polyvagal Theory, states that “our nervous system is always trying to figure out a way for us to us to survive, to be safe.”
The communication between our brains and our bodies depends on the vagus nerve. In his research, Porges has identified three different ways human beings can respond to the activation of our nervous systems. When threatened, even as newborns, the first way our systems respond is to seek assurance that everything is alright by means of our social nervous system. We seek reassurance from another. If that fails, as it often does in hospital settings at the very beginning of our lives, we experience the impulse to fight or flee. When this activation of our sympathetic nervous system happens repeatedly, we develop a pattern of fighting or running away from situations in which we feel at risk. Even a newborn can be angry or frightened and want to fight or run away. When the infant cannot run due to the physical limitations of its body, it will cry in distress. When the cries fail to bring a caregiver who might provide relief, the response can be to become immobilized, descending into the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system. Babies can be overwhelmed and will shut down. They can learn to be quiet, then as adults they are conditioned not to speak up but acquiesce to others. In extreme cases, babies and adults alike can dissociate or become comatose. This can create a life-threatening situation.
Many of us born in hospitals experienced, and continue to experience, distress, depression, and despair. If these feelings are remediated early enough we can avoid taking prescription medication or self-medicating with substances ourselves. Depression is epidemic in the United States today, especially among young people. Welcoming our babies in ways that do not frighten or distress them, can do a lot to reduce any negative consequences. In the meantime, each of us can begin to shift our consciousness to see life as a mirror reflecting the issues we need to heal and remind us that there are alternatives to fighting, fleeing, and dissociating. We can begin to take the advice of Dr. Gladys and “bring humor, wisdom, self-worth, and every other tool” we have to meet our challenges.
Dr. Gladys, in her own pursuit of developing friendships, changed her perspective. Fighting alienated people. The cost of fighting became too high. To be the person she wanted to be and to have the friends she desired, she recognized that she would need to stop fighting “life itself.” She reports that she had to turn toward her friendlessness and “ask what it could teach” her. She could then redirect the energy of her resistance and focus, not on what she’d lost, but to what she had to gain.
Some adversity in life, some distress, is actually good for us. Too much too early can keep us locked in fear and deter the growth and healing that children need to learn coping mechanisms. It can be our greatest challenges that motivate us to accomplish great things. We can turn our proverbial lemons become lemonade. We find worth in ourselves and value in overcoming our trials.
We can begin to trust ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, sometimes revealed to us by our dreams. “Dreams,” says Dr. Gladys, “can show us the answers to our problems or at least help us see them in a new light.” She outlines how to connect to our inner wisdom by first asking a question, then requesting a dream to provide an answer, and then being receptive to receiving elucidation while we sleep. Whatever you find in your dreamtime, is best interpreted by you, the dreamer. Your subconscious mind holds a wealth of knowledge and answers to your questions. Recording through journaling, through artistic expression or voice recordings help preserve your revelations. Who knows what healing, enlightenment and inspiration you will discover?
There is a strong correlation between repeated disturbing thoughts and ill health including chronic pain. Perseverating on negative experiences is self-destructive. Einstein said that doing (and thinking) the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is insanity. Stopping repetitive thoughts of anger, revenge, or hostility of any kind can open doors to hidden creativity. Ill health and pain are often expressions in the body of old unhealed childhood wounds and repeating the story of how we were abused, rejected or betrayed. Continuing to abuse ourselves by running the same old recording never gives us the relief we seek.
Sometimes it feels beyond our capacity to look for lessons in old heartbreak and betrayal, but we each have a Higher Self, that still small voice of the best within us, that can lead us out of our despair. Perhaps we become quiet enough to hear it; perhaps we have an event that wakes us up; perhaps we have an unexpected epiphany. But seeing “life as teacher provides a bigger picture. We can say to ourselves there just has to be more to this than I am seeing. What can I learn from this? If I learn a valuable lesson now, perhaps it will prevent a more painful lesson from showing up later in life.
What we don’t seem to understand is that we identify with the parts of us that were hurt along life’s path. “It’s outdated identifications that cause pain,” declares Dr. Gladys. Rather than saying, I am sick, I am depressed, I am heartbroken, we must affirm what we desire. The word am or any form of the verb to be is like putting an equals sign in your mind. Your very literal subconscious mind takes that statement and generates your attitude, disposition and health based on that command. The verb have has the same effect. To say I have a disease, I have a headache, or I have any condition less than perfection, commands your mind to make that your reality. It will follow your instructions without question. Asking what can I learn from this experience is far better. This simple question has the power to change your life. Practice—and then practice some more—asking for inner wisdom to see with new eyes the difficulties of the past. When you see the bigger picture, like any good student, say thank you.