The One Thing Nobody Can Take From You (And What To Do With It)

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”

–Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


Photo Credit: GerryT via Compfight cc

“You can’t get everything you want. Just deal with it.”

I’m sitting with my two youngest kids on a log, in the North Woods of Wisconsin, waiting for Oldest Son to emerge from his two-week residential summer camp. Younger Son is getting nothing he wants—no air conditioning, no reprieve from the bugs, no LED screen to stare at, no sugar, no nothing—and I’m watching him gather his little internal army for battle.

“Some things you can’t change, buddy. It is what it is. Just accept it.”

I’m dispensing life lessons like crummy candy at a hot parade.

Now he’s poking Youngest Daughter, half-heartedly tripping her, his chin so far out it might tip him over, daring me to go to war with him. I decide it’s time to start disciplining him because even though he’s just being a kid—just testing out selfishness, just trying out entitlement—he needs to learn a lesson:

Refusing to accept the things we cannot change has consequences.

For instance, when we refuse to embrace our basic personality, we practice loathing ourselves instead of loving ourselves. When we try to make kids into what we want them to be—or tell them they can be anything they want to be—we encourage them to waste a lifetime conforming or dreaming, rather than becoming who they are here to be. When we refuse to accept our physical limitations, we injure our bodies. When we try to fix an abusive relationship instead of trying to flee it, we injure our hearts. When we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, we end our days wishing for a do-over.

We’re all standing in lines we can’t shorten and living lives we can’t, for the most part, lengthen. We have a finite amount of energy and not much time, and a lot of both can get wasted trying to move immovable objects.

Youngest Son is still grumbling when we greet Oldest Son, who has survived camp with a few scrapes and bruises and some mysterious paint in his ears, and we head to the nearest town, where my wife has booked our hotel for the night. We round a curve and the hotel appears before us.

You can barely see it behind the weeds.

The lobby isn’t much better—the air conditioning isn’t working, the WiFi is broken, the pool looks like a grimy bathtub, and the counter features multiple handwritten warnings about leaving your hockey sticks in the car. In the room, the air conditioner blows mildew. I walk back out, grab my phone and start making calls.

There’s not a single vacancy in town.

I can’t get everything I want. This particular first-world problem I cannot change. I have to accept it.

Yet, some part of me—probably my ego—rises up and resists this reality. I consider calling my wife and raging at her for her choice of hotel. Instead, I take it out on my kids. I get surly. Snap at them. It’s an adult version of poking and tripping the people I love.

Turns out, my son wasn’t acting like a kid; he was acting like a human.

Thankfully, another part of me—probably my soul—is watching the rest of me and it sees my entitlement and the mess I’m making of the situation and, in that moment of awareness, I know I have a choice to make.

It’s not a choice about where we sleep.

It’s a choice about how to live out my lack of choice about where we sleep.

Ultimately, I decide I can find a little freedom within it. And it turns out, there are some real benefits to staying in a hotel that’s falling apart: usually, I prohibit the kids from jumping on the beds for fear of damaging something in the room. Not in this one. Everything’s broken already.

Peals of laughter resound from bouncing kids.

And it turns out, you can have a lot of fun in a bathtub masquerading as a pool. In fact, one seven-year-old can meet another seven-year-old, and two total strangers can have the time of their lives doing “synchronized jumping” for their applauding parents.

And it turns out, the tiny pool doesn’t go deeper than three feet, so it’s the first pool my five-year-old daughter has felt like “a big kid” in. She simply glows with the status of it.

And it turns out, though the Styrofoam cups in the lobby are so flimsy they disintegrate when you try to push a lid onto them—spraying orange juice all over you and the not-quite-so-continental breakfast bar—the kids absolutely delight in seeing dad spill something at the table, too.

It turns out, we left the hotel happy.

Not because we were determined to change our situation, but because we found the freedom to accept it.

The immovable objects in our lives are trying to move us. Maybe toward peace. Probably toward strength and courage and resilience. And certainly toward freedom.

If we choose to let them.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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36 thoughts on “The One Thing Nobody Can Take From You (And What To Do With It)

  1. Another winner Kelly! Accepting those things that we cannot change and having the courage to change what we can; like our attitudes is the art of living as a human. You captured it well with this post.

  2. You definitely have a great deal of tolerance for these conditions. Did you still pay ‘Full Price’ for these sub standard conditions? Keep lowering your standards & watch Reality grow dismal. Unless you want your Optimism to supreme Reality. Mmm, or is this an example of our overdeveloped sense of entitlement?

    • It is, admittedly a choice. In this case, the choice to be satisfied and pay more, rather than make myself and my kids miserable while haggling and complaining. : )

  3. Oh wow! Thank you for these insightful words of encouragement, it has inspired my quiet time this morning! And may I add, your humor is like fun and colorful gift wrap covering a useful and much needed gift!

    • Thank you, Nancy! The key is bringing that humor directly into the situation, rather than finding it a week later while you write about it. ; )

  4. Kelly – You made my Wednesday morning! I laughed and cried and saw myself. Have a great week!

  5. This! This has been so much on my mind lately: the many ways we expect more self-control, maturity, and flexibility from children than from adults. We do so much learning and growing during our lives, yet it’s shocking how many of our challenges are newly packaged renditions of earlier hurdles.
    Life is messy, we don’t always get what we want, but most of the things that we need are built in collaboration. And it’s so much more fun when we embrace our strange circumstances together than when we hunker down into our separate fortresses near each other.

    And thank goodness for camp and its mystery ear paint.

    • Right on, Shel. I go so much easier on my kids when I take an honest look in the mirror and see how much of what they do is mimicking me. Except the ear paint. I keep my lobes clean. : )

  6. Great blog! I wonder how you’d fare at my house with 5 young adult children and ALL their friends and ALL their shoes! I am with you – there are some things you just have to stop resisting!

    • Oh boy, Kim. I’m overwhelmed by three kids’ worth of shoes. I know exactly how I’d fare with five. It would not be pretty!

  7. This morning you gave me a great big kick in the pants. Stop whining and realize that we happen to life and not the other way around.. Complaining gets us nothing but grief and it makes the people around us plot ways to strangle us in our Thanks for your perspective.

    Refusing to accept the things we cannot change has consequences, Powerful and enlightening. I am now going to save this and maybe put it on the mirror in my room.

  8. Always profound truth here…thank you again for the much needed reminders especially to “accept the things we can not change” and make the most of the blessings right in front of us!

  9. Kelly,

    I hope my notes telling you this is my favorite post ever don’t get tiresome? This is my favorite! It touches home, but is even more apropos for my lovely high achieving only child.

    Thanks as always!

    • Ha! Many things can end up feeling tiresome I think I can safely say, though, that one won’t be one of them. Thank you, too. Hope it hits home with your young one.

  10. Just what I needed to read. I run a small lodge and lately have had a lot of “entitled” guests that I was allowing to bring me down. After reading it I realized how much it is about them, and not what I am offering, (which is pretty darned nice). I know it wasn’t supposed to be about that – but I took that out of it, and it was just the ticket for me and I will also be sharing this with a lot of innkeepers that I know.

    • I’m glad this met you where you’re at, Gina. If we are pursuing excellence in the things we do, we have to trust that is enough!

    • Gina – I too work in the Hospitality Industry and we have a saying that makes us laugh and get over how difficult customers can be sometimes. Here it is! “This job sure would be great if it weren’t for all of these customers!” Hope you smile a lot today!

  11. A good reminder to me to remember my “word” for the year-acceptance. If I don’t accept what I cannot change, I lose. But it is quite a lesson to be learned over and over on how to accept these things gracefully. In a recent “My Utmost for His Highest” I was challenged to understand God is not as much interested in the outcome of my goals as He is in my growth during the process while trying to attain them. Maybe some I just need to let go of….

    • Absolutely, Ginny, focusing on process instead of outcome is a great way to look at it, and another way to freedom!

  12. Four free hours in which to write, a small miracle for a busy mom, and I am stuck! I felt like having a tantrum. Instead, I read your piece~marvelous, poignant and hilarious! Indeed, attitude~My life between my ears, as Anne Ortlund used to say~shapes everything! And wise words can quickly reclaim one that is headed in the wrong direction. I’ll freshen my coffee and get back to work, realigned and thankful for your investment in sharing life speaking words. Thank you so much Kelly. 🙂

  13. Thank you, I’m a fan! Q: Please tell me why should I not tell my kids they can be anything they want to be and how would that encourage them to waste a lifetime conforming
    or dreaming, rather than becoming who they are here to be?

  14. Yep, my marriage started getting much better once I realized I cannot change my husband. Train, yes, change, no :). Great post, I will think about it all week and beyond.

  15. Very encouraging and an excellent reminder to anyone who is still not perfect – me! Thank you for this wisdom.

    I must tell you that my parents never told us we could be anything we wanted to be. Rather, they encouraged us to find the things we love to do and make that a passion that would support us in our lives. It has worked with all 6 of their children and we also were able to pass this on to our children – now up to 13 children, who are having their own children. My mother also had a great saying (she was like my own personal book of proverbs) “Life is pretty much 98% of what is in your mind.” She encouraged us to feed our minds wisely and constantly.

  16. Thanks, Nicely put down, simply said would sounds like, try to find the good, the positive, the pros, the why yes,… Starting to apply this method in all, my life experience is saying if you go though against all ants, it’s not supposed to be… And yes, I must say life turns most of the time better, happier, easier.. You name it, it can be freedom from. attempting to fight the situation. But just sayin,,.. Always find it yes, the good the best in all situations…

  17. Its a great testament to our own resilience when we can let go and release these kinds of situations, find the lesson in them, and ultimately find the enjoyment in them.

    Thank you for sharing.

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