When we comprehend the value of life as a series of unique opportunities to experience existence, it affects us in two major ways: on a personal level, and in our attitude toward others. Because life is fundamentally defined only by our perception of it; we ultimately control whether the events that make up existence have a positive or negative affect upon us. This realization must also apply to our interaction with others since, due to this principle, their lives must be of an equivalent nature.
As individuals, every event we experience has a positive aspect simply because we exist, and are able to discern it. What we consider to be good experiences, are always initially positive; what is ordinary is ultimately positive, in that it is the opportunity to appreciate the experience; and what is negative, always has positive aspects.
The types of events that people perceive as bad, are caused by their own errors in judgment, circumstances beyond their control, or a combination of the two. The mistakes we have made in life can range from the minor events that, upon reflection, invoke feelings of embarrassment; to the major errors that can haunt us for a lifetime. These past mistakes are specific to our own perceptions of the situation, and may be seen in a negative way only by ourselves. Likewise, others may construe our actions as horrendous, whereas we remember them as positive or inconsequential. People deal with the memories of their poor decisions in a variety of ways: usually the wrong ways. Many repress these events, attempting to forget that they ever occurred; only to have the recollections return at inopportune times, or become manifest in an abstract and harmful manner. Others will mentally manipulate the details of an experience in order to justify their behaviour. Some project the unsavoury aspects of an event onto other participants, which allows them to pretend that they themselves are not responsible. Individuals often dwell upon their errors, and relive the guilt and unhappiness for many years; worse yet, they use these past occurrences to excuse their present contrary behaviour.
Using these defense mechanisms is the wrong way to deal with unpleasant events because there is always a negative psychological impact, as well as a failure to gain from knowledge made available by the experience. One must accept that bad things will happen, and that everyone makes mistakes. If you do not learn from these experiences, you have made a positive aspect, into a negative one. You must appreciate that everything that happens to you, changes you; and your goal must be to change for the better. Each adverse episode in life will teach you not to repeat the actions that caused it, and/or provide a lesson in how to deal with that which is beyond your control. This means that as you journey through your life, there will be progressively fewer events that you will perceive as having a negative impact upon you.
A scenario based on an error in judgment, can demonstrate the subtleties of coping with difficult experiences. A teenage woman discovers that her chosen lifestyle has led to pregnancy, and due to her present situation in life, determines that abortion is the only alternative. Putting aside all of the usual arguments over this issue, we can agree that under normal circumstances, the use of abortion as a form of birth control is inappropriate; in that people should never put themselves in a position where it need even be considered. The fact that society in general sees it as unseemly behaviour, and because such actions are contrary to natural instincts; many people carry a burden of guilt over their actions for a long period of time. The woman in our example must deal with a series of emotionally painful events which together, are components of the whole episode. She must face the discovery of an unwanted pregnancy, the decision to abort the foetus, and the actual procedure itself; as well as the reactions of any other people who are aware of her predicament, and the personal mental conflicts related to her religious beliefs. The emotions that are a part of this experience peak during the operation, when a sense of almost overwhelming panic will come upon her: wanting to tell them to stop, yet suppressing the desire to cry out. It is here where the defense mechanisms, pertaining to the whole event, are most likely to be formed.
Later, our young lady may decide to repress this difficult period in life: but you cannot truly escape your subconscious: such memories are only hidden from your awareness, and are never simply destroyed by intent. She may experience symptoms representative of her repression ranging from the obvious, such as feelings of sadness (a manifestation of remorse) when exposed to infants; to the more abstract self-destructive behaviour, which is indicative of a subconscious need to punish herself over unresolved feelings of guilt.
Her choice of defence mechanisms may be rationalization: convincing herself that she did nothing wrong, and that unplanned pregnancy is a quirk of fate, which can strike anyone regardless of circumstances. She may project fault onto her partner for failing to take adequate precautions, or misleading her into putting herself in such a predicament. Or even place blame on her parents: for failing to provide decent role models, and instill her with adequate values. Using these methods to cope with this episode in life requires that, to some degree, one sees oneself as a helpless puppet; or worse, a simple mindless creature incapable of independent rational thought. When you, as an adult, make a decision; it does not matter that other people or events have biased your ability to come to a correct conclusion: it is still only you who ultimately decides. You are responsible for your actions; and have either made the right or wrong choice, and must face the consequences.
The woman in our example chose to engage in sexual activity without taking sufficient precautions; and by doing so, accepted the risks that she was aware were part of this decision: even while knowing that she could not deal with the possible outcome. This was an error in judgment which cannot be undone, and all the guilt and remorse of a lifetime cannot change reality: therefore, no purpose is served by making the emotions, rather than the event itself, the focus of one’s thoughts. You do not have to live with guilt, when the lesson learned ensures that you will not repeat the mistake. You do not have to hide from the past, when you take responsibility for it, and see the experience as a lesson that will make you a better person. Obviously, this means that you must remember these unpleasant occurrences, in order to benefit from them: not in an emotional way, in which you perpetuate the negative aspects; but in an analytical form, where the circumstances of the event serve as guidelines for your future actions; which is a positive aspect of the experience.
Much of this can be applied to certain episodes in life that are beyond your control. People will frequently attach feelings of guilt to events in which others were entirely at fault: being sexually molested as a child is a common example of this. Molesters will usually attempt to make children feel responsible for the assault, in order to ensure silence, and justify their own psychotic behaviour. As well, a child may experience pleasurable sensations during such a violation, which can result in repressed guilt. These gratifying sensations are not necessarily sexual in nature; but are often, depending on the age of the child, a fulfillment of their need for the attention lacking in their life, an opportunity to believe that they are being caste in a mature role, and/or a chance to feel significant/desirable by having an adult focus solely upon them in such a manner. In retrospect, individuals who have gone through such abuse can harbour a sense that they could have done something to prevent, or in some way provoked, the event. They are now, of course, perceiving the situation from a completely different perspective: using knowledge they did not have prior to the occurrence, and which cannot be applied to their younger self, because the person they are now is a different person from the one they were in the past. Contrary to what children may wish to believe, they usually have not yet had enough experiences to formulate truly independent decisions; and are very much a reflection of the influence from a small number of people. Realizing that you were incapable of making rational choices due to your limited knowledge, places the blame where it belongs: on the perpetrator. The negative actions of others do not reflect upon you, but them.
People frequently do not wish to come to this conclusion, because it removes the crutch they use to justify every failure, and every serious error in judgment, that occurs in their life. This aspect of misplaced fault then becomes their responsibility. Clinging to an illusion of child-like ignorance, where each subsequent negative event is ultimately caused by the actions of someone in your past, condemns you to a life of repeated misery; because you have learned nothing from all of the lessons available to you since the original crisis.
Separating the emotional and rational elements of our perception of unhappy episodes can be illustrated by the difference between mental and physical pain. Remembering an incident where we suffered a physical injury, we recall the circumstances of the situation, and the fact that it was a painful experience; but we can only experience the pain in an abstract way. We can recollect it as intense, sharp, the worst ever felt; use any number of descriptive terms: yet the actual pain itself cannot be relived. Past physical pain exists in our memory as an event, and not as actual feeling. Because the experiencing of the sensation is only remembered rationally; we learn not to repeat the actions that led to the injury, and do not attempt to use psychological methods to distort the reality of the event.
Mental, or emotional, pain can be relived. We can feel the same intensity of anguish long after the event, and the circumstances surrounding the experience are remembered as components of the feeling. The factual details may only exist in an abstract form, because it is the emotion that has importance to us, and the defense mechanisms we apply to the memory cause us to alter reality. It is apparent that the rational way in which we deal with physical pain, is superior to the way in which the mind retains emotional pain. The unadulterated experience of a physical event is going to have an effect which is positive, in that it is purely a lesson in life. Analysing an emotional event, as if it were a physical one, can yield the same positive effect. No one is going to be able to treat emotional anguish in a totally rational way, because emotions are innate and cannot be separated from human perception; but treating many of the components of the episode logically, can lessen the impact of the overall experience, and allow us to retain some elements that are actually positive lessons.
The goal in life is to look for the good in everything we undergo. The simple fact that we are alive, and able to experience the difficult times that will occur in everyone’s life, is wonderful when compared to the alternative. Granted there are situations where clinging to life is no longer a reasonable option; but such circumstances generally involve irreversible medical conditions. There are those who sometimes feel that they would rather be dead, than continue within the series of seemingly endless emotionally painful events that their existence entails. If you believe that the absolute peace of death is preferable, over this one opportunity to experience life in this way; keep in mind that you have no choice but to eventually experience death: it will be an event that you shall not miss; whereas everything else can only be perceived from this unique perspective while you live. If your final “reward” is inevitable, there is no suffering that can be seen as endless, and no reason to forego any joy that may have occurred in the interim.
Specific emotions exist only within your mind, and have no physical substance; therefore you suffer by choice, because it is your perception alone which makes the pain real, and only your thoughts which sustain it. This does not change the fact that other people or events can inflict negative emotions upon you; but when these circumstances become the past, you become the source of the anguish in the present. Life can never be seen as perpetual happiness, because everything is subject to your perspective. A person who has only known wealth, may become upset when they find that the Ferrari they ordered cannot be delivered for six weeks; whereas you would find being in such a situation particularly enjoyable. The majority of people tend to look for the negative aspects in things, rather than the positive, partly due to the competitive nature of our society; but also because we set unrealistic standards by comparing our experiences to an imaginary ideal. Life is contrast, and happiness exists only because unhappiness does as well. To know that one is free from pain, one must know what it is to feel pain.
Naturally, everyone wants to experience more good events in life, than bad. You can learn to cope with any difficult situation, you can find the positive aspects in every incident; but you would much rather not have to deal with them at all. All people feel as you do, and want to avoid the unpleasant episodes in life: everyone wants to appreciate existence in a positive way. This is where the ancient adage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” applies to your interaction with others. This social contract is one of the behavioural codes that is a part of our gregarious nature, and enables us to function as a society. Your perception of the world is shaped by the actions of the people around you, and your conduct influences how other people experience their lives. Ideally, everyone would temper their behaviour with foresight; and consequently, avoid causing unnecessary discomfort to others. Although such a development is impossible, because there will always be individuals who are purely self-centered, due to genetic or mental deficiencies: the more people who are aware of how they affect someone else’s happiness, the more likely it is that another will be conscious of how they affect yours.
Ultimately, it comes down to logic. On a personal level, you wish to experience life in a way that is mainly positive, with as few negative occurrences as possible. Since other people usually define whether your experiences are initially positive or negative; it is advantageous to you when they behave in such a manner as to minimize the negative effects. This can be seen as a self-rewarding attitude. If you treat others with an awareness that you can control whether their encounter with you influences their lives in a good, or bad way; it can be said that you are behaving altruistically. But it is all tied together: through affecting the actions of people, by demonstrating a considerate demeanor, you are increasing the likelihood of their acting in kind; this altruism is self-rewarding. By perceiving the world in a positive way, and “doing unto others” in order to have them “do unto you”, your self-rewarding behaviour is also altruistic.