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Assigning Meaning to the Events of our Lives

A Man, His Son, and a Horse

This very old Chinese Taoist story can help us "reframe" the meaning of life's events.

A farmer in a poor country village was considered very well-to-do, because he owned a horse which he used for plowing and for transportation. One day his horse ran away. All his neighbors exclaimed how terrible this was, but the farmer simply said, "Maybe."

A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbors all rejoiced at his good fortune, but the farmer just said, "Maybe."

The next day the farmer's son tried to ride one of the wild horses; the horse threw him and broke his leg. The neighbors all offered their sympathy for his misfortune, but the farmer again said, "Maybe."

The next week conscription officers came to the village to take young men for the army. They rejected the farmer's son because of his broken leg. When the neighbors told him how lucky he was, the farmer replied, "Maybe."

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Comments on the above story:

The meaning that any event has depends upon the "frame" in which we perceive it. When we change the frame, we change the meaning. In the above story... Having two wild horses is a good thing until it is seen in the context of the son's broken leg. The broken leg seems to be bad in the context of peaceful village life; but in the context of conscription and war, it suddenly becomes good.

This is called "reframing"... changing the frame in which you perceive events in order to change the meaning. When the meaning changes, your responses and behaviors may also change.

Many people assume that when there is a particular event in one's life, there is some natural, universal reaction to that event. But you need only stop and consider how often two different people face the same difficult situation in life—but each of them reacts and responds in a completely different way. That's because the consequences as they are experienced by each person are determined by their personal "belief system."

Many behavioral experts have studied this phenomenon, but one of the earliest was Albert Ellis with his work in "Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy." He explains how it works using a system of A - B - C. (A is the Activating event, B is the personal Belief, and C is the Consequences.) He points out that A (the "Activating event") does not lead directly to C (the "Consequences") without the intervening variable of B (the individual's personal "Beliefs") that serve to translate the meaning of the event.

On a personal note: I've been helped by my awareness of Ellis's work (which began before I learned of my husband's affairs over 35 years ago). I found his concepts helpful in recognizing that any life crisis is an event that can potentially destroy us or from which we can emerge wiser and stronger. I've described a little about the two major life crises I've faced in the article: Life Crises: Extramarital Affairs—and Cancer.

At one point, about 30 years ago, I finally met Albert Ellis in person when we both were guests on the same TV talk show. Since that time, he has graciously read and carefully critiqued several of my books, for which I am grateful.

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