Try this on for size: what if the events of your life are as random and distinct from each other as stars in the sky, and the work of your life is to draw them together into constellations you can use to guide you through the world? What if your experiences aren’t good or bad, even when they are without doubt joyful or painful, and you have the power to make them each useful (even the painful ones) by being deliberate about which points of light you choose to attend to, how you choose to connect them, and how you make meaning out of the patterns you see?
If you choose to try this philosophy on it’ll be important to acknowledge that the stories you tell yourself when you look back over the events of your life aren’t real, just the way the constellations you see when you look up at the sky aren’t real. From any other angle in space or era in time you wouldn’t see a dipper at all; for that matter you can’t even be sure whether the dipper you do see exists even as you’re looking at it. For all you know those stars burned out thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of years before you were born and they just haven’t realized it yet. In just this way the events you remember in your life may or may not have happened exactly as you remember them, and may appear entirely different if viewed from any other time or place.
Still we like to see patterns, it’s what we’re built to do. So you look back and say that this event led to that other, and they all happened because of my action or inaction. Or because of his, or hers, or theirs. Maybe, but what if they all just happened because of forces set in motion long before you entered the situation? What if everything is a series of chain reactions with each of us bouncing and rebounding off everyone we meet forever? Maybe the truth is that you’ll never understand the why of your life, and sometimes you’re just guessing at the what. But even if the stories we create about our lives aren’t real, they can still be as useful as the constellations we draw for ourselves in the sky. People have learned to cross the seas and find their way home again from the other side of the world based on how they interpreted those points of light, and maybe you can do the same.
I know a woman who never went to college and struggled with addiction for many years. She sees those experiences as defining her and has developed a deep distrust of herself. Her insecurity and shame hurt me; I can’t imagine their weight on her. But those two moments of her life aren’t the only stars in her sky, and they are far from the most useful. Sure they happened, but there’s nothing she can do with them. They don’t light a path forward. Also true and much more useful is that she raised healthy, happy children: she knows how to set limits and boundaries; how to connect with young people; how to support, encourage, and discipline. She runs a household: she knows how to put together a delicious meal out of absolutely nothing; she can stretch a dollar further than anyone I’ve ever met; she has the organizational skills to keep a dozen balls in the air without breaking a sweat. She has been in recovery for a decade: she has overcome what other people can only imagine; she can relate to people struggling with their own demons. These are real, valuable accomplishments and strengths. They are no more or less true than her dark moments, but they are infinitely more useful. The way she reads her sky traps her, but there is a way to read her sky that frees her.
It can be hard to look at your own life experiences without judgment. But you can try to step back, let go of the connections you’ve made in the past and instead see the moments of your life as stars in the sky. You might begin to see new shapes emerge, new narratives based around moments of success rather than moments of darkness. Pick the brightest lights for once. Try to draw a picture of the strength in your stars rather than the fault and see where you end up when you follow that constellation over the horizon.