I’m not the sort of person who believes that everything happens for a reason. I don’t think anyone is obliged to find meaning in any particular experience they have. Sometimes things are just awful and unfair and it is kinder to label them as such. Sometimes the only lesson is to get out.
However, obviously we have to learn from at least some of our experiences if we’re going to have any kind of meaningful interaction with the rest of the world. Most of the time what we learn isn’t self announcing. We pick up small environmental cues all the time about what and who to be, and if we aren’t careful, those can shape us without our noticing. We are trained by television, adverts, the music we hear and the cultures in our workplaces. We check things out because they seem popular.
If you want to be deliberate about what you’re learning from your experiences, you have to take time out to think about it. Deliberate reflection on what’s happened means getting to choose how to interpret an experience. We’re more likely to do this around dramatic times in our lives, but in terms of shaping who we are, that day to day stuff is well worth keeping an eye on.
We don’t have to learn the lessons other people want us to learn. Usually those are about being quieter, more biddable, taking up less space, asking for less and accepting less. Lessons about working harder for the same money, giving up more of your free time and accepting stress are rife in workplaces, and we learn to do as we’re instructed at our peril.
There’s one kind of lesson I think it’s worth learning from any experience we have, and that’s how to be more compassionate. Everything we go through has something to teach us about who we are, and often about other people’s lives and experiences as well. There’s always room to learn something that lets you be more compassionate – towards yourself as well as other people. Any opportunity to see something from a different perspective helps with this. Any situation where we can look for the kindest response we can offer, we’ve got scope to learn about compassion.
I think if you’re focused on whatever’s kindest, then whatever other meanings you take from a situation, it probably won’t lead you astray. The habit of looking for compassion leads to a gentler, and more peaceful way of being in the world. It’s a lot better than trying to learn how to fit in, or how to get ahead, or how to knock someone else down.