When Life Gives You Lemons, Pay Closer Attention to the Lemons

Most of us automatically categorize life experiences into two categories—good versus bad—and then we try to eliminate or avoid the bad ones. But what if there is a better way to categorize experiences? And what if that way of categorizing them could make us more aware of the beauty all around us all of the time…


Photo Credit: Julenochek (Bigstock)

The curves made me listen.

I was on my first long bike ride in years, and my destination was a local city park. It has a humble, boring entrance, but within seconds, you find yourself descending bluffs on a series of switchbacks, before the road levels out along a stretch of tranquil riverfront. The ride to the park was mostly long, straight stretches of road. I sped past neighborhoods and then cornfields, the wind whipping past my ears, obscuring the sounds of sunrise.

Then, the curves.

As I began my descent, I slowed for the first time, and the din of wind in my ears ceased. Suddenly, for the first time all morning, I could hear birdsong all around me, deer loping in the underbrush, and the dance of breeze in the leafy canopy above. It was the most treacherous part of my ride, but because the curves forced me to slow down, I was able to take in the beauty that had been surrounding me the whole time.

Life works this way, too.

We race through most of it, especially the long stretches of road upon which everything is going as planned, the straight stretches of road that get us from where we are to where we want to go. We earn degrees, or find a companion, or have children, or progress in our careers, or slowly start to figure out who we are, or learn how to love ourselves, or learn how to love others, or all of the above. Miles and miles of life flying by—straight stretches of love-making and diaper-changing and home-buying and bill-paying and television-watching.

On the straight stretches of life-as-planned, beauty is surely all around us, but the winds of time and existence whistle too loudly for us to truly hear very much of it.

But then, the steep and dangerous curves. The broken relationship. The lost job. The rebellious child. The accident. The diagnosis. The loss. Heartache and heartbreak. Dear John letters. Hospitals and funerals. Grief in its infinite guises. The toll that time always takes, eventually. The curves that inevitably slow us down—perhaps, all the way to standstill. Perhaps all the way to our knees. No one would choose the curves.

But the curves eventually choose everyone.

And once they’ve chosen us, we have to decide what to do with them. Usually, I pray for a detour. Sometimes, I wastefully wish I could reverse time and return to the straight roads. Sometimes I stop, paralyzed by my fear, in the middle of the curves. Sometimes, I get angry at the curves. Always, I resist and resent them for a little while. Until, on some random morning, on some random bike ride, I remember how the curves redeem themselves:

They awaken us to the beauty all around us, if we let them.

Most of us spend most of our lives categorizing our experiences as good versus bad. Straight stretches of life-as-planned are sorted into the good pile. And the slow, painful curves of life are pushed into the bad pile. In doing so, we push away some of the most profound beauty of life—the beauty happening in the underbrush, and the beauty happening up above us.

So, what if instead of evaluating our experiences as good or bad, we tried to be as present as possible to all of it, regardless of whether the road is straight or curving. Instead of asking, is this good or bad, what if we asked, “Am I being present to it or not?” What if, when life gave us lemons, we simply paid closer attention to the lemons?

Because regardless of whether life is breaking good or breaking bad, if you are faithfully present to it, you will slow down long enough to truly hear it—to see it, to taste it, to smell it and to touch it. Regardless of the joy or the sorrow, you will be able to let the beauty around you get into you. During straight, happy stretches of road. And during curvy, teary stretches, too.

That might be the best we can hope for.

It is probably the only thing we can actually control.

It is, I think, certainly worth a try.

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Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

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+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

37 thoughts on “When Life Gives You Lemons, Pay Closer Attention to the Lemons

  1. Yes! I was thinking about this this morning while struggling to come to terms with getting up. The phrase “it’s more painful to be awake than to be asleep” came into my head and many times I handle that by closing my eyes and lying still in the hope that pain won’t notice I’m awake. But it always knows. This morning I realised that the choice is between ignoring pain, pushing it away for another time, or embracing it like an old friend.

  2. There’s something here; the idea of control, or maybe the idea I need to control. Maybe let go of the handlebars from time-to-time? What’s the worst that could happen?

    (Goes on internet, searches for “bike crash gif”, sees what could happen)

    Then I do it anyway 🙂

    Happy Wednesday

  3. Being faithfully present to this day, this moment, this pain, this joy I get to be with beauty and absorb it into my very being, altering The Who that is me, the beauty that He is and I am too. Thank you Kelly , again , for reminding me to be present to the and my and His beauty versus our good or our bad.

  4. Slowing down. Good idea. Mindfulness seems to be a particularly acute method to staying on track. Your words helped me reflect on the doctrine of my faith. God has His own analogy about the way we travel back to Him in this life. His path is like a foot path with only room enough for one to travel one direction because it is so narrow, but it is straight and the only way to stay on such a path without wandering off is to listen to a very still, very small voice that guides us. Thank you for the reminder to pause and reflect on my footing.

  5. Thank you, Kelly – I really needed to be reminded of this today. I’m in the midst of a difficult work relationship that mimics what I experienced growing up. My head knows I am practicing the new behaviors I’ve learned in therapy, but my gut feels terrorized. It’s a challenge to just be with that discomfort and not judge it. Your image of riding a bike on the curves and looking for the beauty all around there reminds me to focus on all the good relationships in my life that help me remember things are different now than they were when I was a kid! Curves can indeed be redeeming . . . God doesn’t waste anything 🙂

    • Wow, Kathy, we talked about this very thing today during the Facebook Live. The idea that mindfulness now can help us to overcome the trauma from then by helping us to experience that now is truly not then. Follow your instinct on this!

  6. This went right to the very core of my being. The most beautiful post I’ve read. My heart is full of gratitude for your writing and the timing of your beautiful words. What you’ve written here speaks to the awakening that I’ve experienced in the last few years. The curves in my life are no longer treacherous places that I fear. They have become beautiful places where I get to slow down and experience, just experience, life to its fullest in pain and love and beauty and darkness. And those curves have made the straight roads that much more wonderful. Thank you. Thank you.

    • Nancy, I love it when what I write is received not as a call forward but as naming of the path that has already been traveled. So glad for you and where you find yourself!

  7. Good timing. New life curve here… unemployment… amped up the schedule for testing for certifications since I have increased time and brainpower to study.

    Embracing the solitude that comes with this change is proving more challenging, I just keep pouring myself into work(study). I know I need to take unstructured me time (in addition to yoga and walking) just to wander but am having a hard time giving myself permission.

  8. I think is one of the most challenging parts of life, learning to live in the present. And not only that, but learning to really ENJOY the present. I realize that there is little enjoyment in the hard parts of our lives, but there are those moments when, if we are listening and are present, the beauty will appear. Thanks for the reminder! I always love your insight!

  9. If I could, I would live my life on a nice straight, predictable, flat path. Unfortunately for me, it seems growth and gratitude only come in the curves. I have spent the last year and half trying to bend reality to my will (or straighten the curves). As I learned to slowly surrender my will to reality, I have received gifts that otherwise might have been lost to me. While I can’t shout “bring on the curves!”, I am grateful for the changes they have brought in who I am as a human being.

    • I really love what you’ve said here. This isn’t about glorifying the curves, or desiring them, this is about entering them when they arrive and surrendering to them and learning from them. Thank you.

  10. Great analogy! At the point of the worst emotional crisis in my life, possibly even in mental shock, I remember acutely the dazzling sunshine thru the fluttering leaves, dappling the sweet smelling grass on which I sat contemplating a reality I could never have imagined. And then later, the sweet peace of a beautiful sunset to console me. I believe I experienced this slow motion mindfulness not so much due to a conscious effort of my own but through the instinctive behavior of my soul trying to protect me. In any event I navigated the curves by slowing down and attending carefully to the way forward. It took years to follow through on the path of healing but mindfulness was definitely a tool I used time and again.

  11. Thank You. This is so true. I recently broke a leg bone in my lower right (aka driving leg). It isn’t fun, but could be worse for sure. What I have learned in the slow, rough times is that I spend too much time rushing around, that my family is amazing at stepping up to help, and that even things like cleaning up (which I might complain about) are blessings (something you realize when you can’t clean up so much). It has also given me a new compassion for the elderly, the shut ins, and the less abled.

  12. I love this blog and do think I need to be more present in the moments of my life….but I do wonder what to do with those moments when being fully present would create such pain or sorrow that my heart would burst? What do we do when disengaging seems the only option because of a traumatic event? Are there times when NOT being present is actually healthy and can keep a person from falling apart? Are there times when we should classify some events as “bad” or even “horribly evil”? I am left feeling a little guilty for not being fully present when my world fell apart from sexual addiction and the discovery of so much evil. Is there a healthy way to balance this?

    • I have a friend with dissociative personality disorder. From her extensive sexual abuse as a child, her brain learned to cope by dissociating. She has been to counseling, but she, 50 years later, is still too fragile to do EMDR therapy to heal the trauma. I think there are absolutely things that you can lean into too much, and your psyche knows it isn’t safe to do that. For me, it’s heartache. The only thing that has actually helped me has been transcendental meditation.

  13. & just the other evening, almost dusk w no humidity I enjoyed NO bugs & listening to cicadas& sounds from ” frog hollow” & all I could do was SMILE!

  14. Kelly, you process so well & do a wonderful job w this blog…. just, making folks STOP, think, & listen! Thankyou!

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