In The Five Things We Cannot Change, David Richo distills thirty years of experience as a therapist to explain the underlying roots of unhappiness—and the surprising secret to finding freedom and fulfillment.
There are certain facts of life that we cannot change—the unavoidable “givens” of human existence:
(1) Every beginning leads to a finale
The first given of life is that changes and endings are inevitable for any person, relationship, enthusiasm, or thing. Nothing is perfect, permanently satisfying, or permanently anything. Everything falls apart in time. Every beginning leads to a finale.
Yet once we trust the process of evolution, we realize that the way things are must be exactly what is best. The changes are carefully timed alignments that make the universe endure and unfold. This is ultimately a mystery, since it is hard to know why it has to be this way.
(2) Things do not always go according to a plan
We make plans expecting to be in control of what will happen. Perhaps we fear natural happenings, things turning out contrary to our wishes. We are challenged by life’s ‘mind of its own’ to let go of having things come out our way. This is about control. We may act with precision, and self-discipline, expecting the world to follow suit and grant us our reward.
Perfect discipline, or perfect control, is the best way to miss out on the joy of life. The unruly givens of life are permissions not to be perfect. We can flow into the natural chaos of life, so untidy, so unpredictable, or we can try to order life fully by making careful plans. We know now that a yes to life is a yes to grief and pain, since all the conditions of existence represent losses and disappointments. Yes is a healthy response to the human condition.
(3) Life is not always fair
Life is not always fair and neither are people, ourselves included. Sometimes we are taken advantage of. Sometimes we do all the right things and wind up losing. Sometimes we act cautiously and are nonetheless hurt. Others may be generous to us and yet we take advantage of their kindness. The third given challenges our ability to grieve for the losses associated with unfairness.
The challenge is to meet our losses with loving-kindness, the commitment to act and thinnk lovingly toward others, especially when they test our patience or act hurtfully toward us. Cultivating loving-kindness when people treat us unfairly or hurtfully helps us by keeping our hearts open in and through the moment of being hurt. To reconcile instead of retaliate leads to closeness between the wounded and wounding parties.
(4) Pain is part of life
A given of life is that there is a cost to everything, and suffering is part of that cost. This given is stated in the first noble truth of Buddhism, which is often translated into English as ‘Life is suffering’, or ‘Life is unsatisfactory’. Another way of stating this truth or given is that pain is not punishment, and pleasure is not a reward. They are simply features of any existence.
We suffer physically, psychologically, and spiritually and we grow in those some ways. Suffering seems to be an ingredient of growth during every phase and on every threshold of our development.
All the traditions seem to agree that meaningful growth comes at the price of pain. Why? That is a mystery, and the fact that there is not satisfying answer is related to the first noble truth of the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of human life. In Buddhism, karma is the basis of trusting what happens, of trusting the cards we are dealt, of trusting the pain, we did not plan. Belief in karma requires trust that there is something we know not what, we know not how, that is always at work so that evolution can proceed and flourish through us.
(5) People are not loving and loyal all the time
Some people act dishonestly; some lie; some are hypocritical. Part of growing up psychologically and spiritually is noticing all this but without censure or retaliation. We do not willingly allow others to be dishonest or hurtful toward us if we can prevent it. If they are, we ask for amends. If all we do fails, we let go.
No human being was ever loved or treated respectfully by everyone. That has to settle in as a simple fact of life. Then we mindfully notice others’ reactions to us and go on loving and respecting others no matter what. Our capacity to love survives unscathed.
Our spiritual practice of loving-kindness toward all beings helps us join this tougher skin to a tender heart. This is how hurts helps us find our own potential for unconditional love and unconditional compassion.
Complement The Five Things We Cannot Change with What really leads to lasting personal transformation. Change is a mystery. There is no panacea, no one answer to how and why some people can alter their behavior, while others cannot, and even amongst the world’s experts there is little consensus for what really makes the difference in successful transformations.