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

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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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.