When Life is Beyond Our Control


In the early 1830s a train of Conestoga wagons rolled through the Cumberland Gap from Virginia into Kentucky. They turned south along the Cumberland Plateau into Tennessee and planned to turn west at Monterey to Nashville. From there, they would go west to Texas.

A young widow with several children drove one of the wagons in the train. After her husband died, her brother in east Texas had sent word that he would help her raise the children if she could just get them to Texas.

The wagon train stopped for the night in a valley just north of Monterey Tennessee, a few miles from the Kentucky border. A friendly farmer let the widow and her boys spend the night in the haymow of his barn. But the next morning, one of the little boys had the measles.

The wagon master, trying to do his job, told the mother she had two options: she cold stay with the boy, or she could leave him--but he announced that no sick boy could go with the wagon train, for he would surely infect the other pioneers. The widow knew that if she stayed, another wagon train they could join might not come along for months and months. After intense agonizing, the widow decided to leave the little boy with the farmer, promising to return for him as soon as she got her other little ones settled in Texas. But she never came back. Some speculate that she died. Others believe she could not manage the trip back to Tennessee. We’ll probably never know why the mother didn’t return for her son.

That little boy was my (Les Sr.’s) great-grandfather. And he has left an invaluable legacy to our family.

Great-Grandfather fought in the confederacy during the Civil War. His leg was shot off in battle. When the army released him at Murfreesboro, he had to hobble the last 65 miles home on a pair of crutches. What a tortuous journey!

Each year millions of people are robbed of happiness because they succumb to a negative mind-set, blaming their unhappiness on people and things. Children, as well as adults, say phrases like “He makes me so angry.” People can do or say things that tempt us to respond negatively and be upset, but we can choose to take the high road. Being emotionally upset is a natural reaction to something we dislike, but that reaction can trigger a more constructive, positive response. Perhaps this is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote in Phil. 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.”

The ability to adjust when life is beyond our control, like the widow leaving her child in Tennessee, is the ability to recognize that we, not our circumstances, control our attitudes.

Adjusting to things beyond your control really does matter in life, and this is why. Some people live radiant, happy and productive lives. Others who attend the same church listen to the same sermons and sing the same songs as these radiant folks, but they are beaten down, defeated, and riddled with worry. It’s no accident that some people can absorb life’s jolts, internalize injustice, and then rise above the seemingly unbearable stress of life and be happy anyway.

The reason for the discrepancy is not luck. Nor is it an ability to solve problems--as important as that is. Attitude is the reason some people make the most of their lives while others barely make it at all.

Once an old dog fell into a farmer's well. After assessing the situation, the farmer sympathized with the dog but decided that neither the dog nor the well were worth the trouble of saving. Instead he planned to bury the old dog in the well and put him out of his misery.

When the farmer began shoveling dirt into the well, the old dog was hysterical. But as the farmer continued shoveling and the dirt hit his back, the dog started shaking it off and stepping on top of that dirt, blow after blow. No matter how painful the clods of dirt landing on him were or how distressing the situation seemed, the old dog fought panic and kept shaking off the dirt and stepping up. Before too long, battered and exhausted, he stepped triumphantly over the wall of that well. What seemed as if it would bury him actually benefited him, even saved him--because of the way he handled his adversity.

If we face our problems and respond to them positively--refusing to give in to panic, bitterness, or self-pity--the adversities that come to bury us can potentially bless us if we cultivate the capacity to adjust to situations beyond our control.

This article was excerpted from the book The Life You Want Your Kids to Live published by Beacon Hill Press, 2001.