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How to Handle the Unexpected

How to Handle the Unexpected

My life has been full of surprises. I've had wonderful experiences. Many things have been good and pleasurable. Others have been shocking and painful. A few have been devastating.

It’s the losses that stick deeply in my mind:
• Grandparents passing early
• A fire, numerous accidents, and more death
• A good friend snuffed out by illness
• My parents’ divorce
• My dad’s sudden death

By age 15, I didn’t like surprises any more.

I can say this with confidence: life isn’t what I thought it would be. It has been a wild and unpredictable ride, a journey of unexpected twists and turns.

What do we do when what comes isn’t what we wanted? How do we handle it when what happens is the last thing we would ever want?

The Unwelcome Unexpected

On the whole, we seem most content when we feel safe and secure. We like to be sure of things. When our certainties are challenged, our hearts tremble. When the unexpected occurs, we find ourselves in uncharted territory.

The unwelcome unexpected can come in many forms:
• Bad news about someone we care about
• An unfavorable diagnosis or health crisis
• Financial trouble
• Relational upset or estrangement
• Emotional instability
• The slow erosion of abilities, motivation, or purpose

The unexpected is often about loss of some kind - whether real or perceived. If we take enough hits, we begin to fear the next blow. We can cease to really live and end up meandering through our days wondering what might happen next.

Wondering often leads to worry. Worry stokes our fears. We feel vulnerable and exposed. No wonder our hearts quake.

What can we do about this?

4 Ways to Handle the Unexpected

Handling the unwanted surprises of life can be challenging. Here are some suggestions:

1. Accept the unexpected as a natural part of life.

Life is unpredictable. We get surprised all the time.

We’re not the first to face the dilemma of the “unwelcome unexpected.” Our ancestors were confronted by it too. Wise King Solomon once said, "There is nothing new under the sun."

The new unknowns we face are simply new to us. Others are facing similar trials all the time. Accepting that the unexpected is common and a natural part of life can help give us perspective in the midst of upheaval.

2. Accept your vulnerability.

Sudden shock can reveal how vulnerable we are. Our visions of personal invincibility can evaporate in an instant.

We yearn to be strong. We smile when things are going well and see ourselves as somewhat in control of our lives.

The problem is the “control” we think we have is often an illusion.

It’s easy for me to list what I’m not in control of: people, financial markets, traffic, cancer, and just about everything else operating in the world around me. I don’t even cause my own heart to beat.

All of us are vulnerable. We actually live more effectively when we accept this and give up the frustrating adventure of trying to control other people and situations.

3. Guard your heart and mind

How we see and interpret life’s unexpected surprises matters.

I remember an illustration from my first college psychology course. The professor handed a student in the first row a pair of glasses with red lenses. Then he held up a white cup and asked, "What color is this?"

"Red," the student answered.

"And what color is my shirt?" the prof asked.


"And how about the board behind me?"


As we all smiled, the professor said, "How we see things depends on what lenses we're looking through, which impacts the choices we make."

Once the unwelcome unexpected strikes, what goes on in our minds and hearts will drive our decisions. We can’t control what happens, but we do have some say about how we choose to see and interpret it.

How we respond matters deeply – both for ourselves and those around us.

4. Focus on relationships

The unexpected can shake the sturdiest of hearts. Ultimately, none of us can stand alone. We need each other, badly.

My first response to a shock is not to seek help. Instead, I tend to withdraw. I retreat into myself and start trying to figure things out. Many times, those around me are watching, waiting for a chance to offer some support.

When we go it alone, we rob others of an opportunity to love and serve us. We also deny ourselves a good deal of comfort.

What if we let people into our struggle? Whether we realize it or not, our uncharted territory impacts those around us too. Whatever influences us will in some way affect those closest to us.

No matter how much of an introvert or extravert we might be, we’re all wired for relationship. We weren’t designed to do life alone, especially when the rug gets pulled out from under us.

When disaster strikes, we need each other’s support. We need the kindness and patience of those around us, and they need ours in return.

Expect the unexpected

The unexpected will come. When it hits, take a deep breath. Life has its share of unwelcome surprises.

Your heart is vulnerable. Take it seriously. Monitor the thoughts that pass through your mind. Be patient with yourself, and allow your heart to adjust to what’s happening. Remember the people around you. Seek support. Stay kind. Stay loving.

Life is an uncertain adventure that requires great courage. If we’re willing, the unexpected can challenge us to be better, wiser people. Most of the world’s game-changers have faced massive obstacles and more than their share of suffering.

If you’re in uncomfortable, uncharted territory, take heart. Though your terrain might be different, many have faced similar obstacles. How you respond can make more of a difference than you realize.

Gary Roe is an author, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. Visit him at www.garyroe.com or contact him at 979-821-2266 or groe@hospicebrazosvalley.org .