My dad used to tell me from time to time, “Margaret, life’s about compromise.”
Considering the massive amount of wisdom I’d accrued by the age of twenty when I first heard him say this, I silently shook my head and decided that my father’s difficulties in life had jaded his perspective. And I thought he was wrong.
After all, there were many things in his life that had been hard. He’d lost his dad as a teenager and gave up any idea he might’ve had to be an engineer or a doctor to stay home and run the family funeral business. He’d had a heart attack in his mid-40’s and missed a chance to run for the presidency of the national professional organization he’d been a member of for years – and was a shoe-in to win.
So when he talked to me, I thought he was only focusing on the negative — on what you gave up in life instead of everything that could be accomplished. I was sure that with enough effort, and maybe a little good luck thrown in, you could achieve all of your dreams. And if you listen to all of the accomplishment gurus out there, that seems absolutely true.
However, now I know what what my father meant. He wasn’t being negative; he was being realistic.
Life throws you curve balls…
It does. Some you may hit; many you don’t. If you focus on those opportunities you missed – the things that didn’t work out, the goals that you strived for and didn’t attain, the disappointments or failures, you can get lost in the “what if’s.”
What if you’d married someone else? What if you hadn’t been screamed at as a child? What if you didn’t have the illness that you do? What if your dad hadn’t died, or your mother hadn’t been depressed? Who could you have been? What could your life have been like?
Focus on the past and your present will be defined by it. Focus on the present, on what is that is good, and you’ll find your own place of peace.
To do that, you have to compromise, within yourself.
We think of compromise as something that happens between two people or entities; countries compromise and reach treaties. Healthy partners concede to one another in a fair and respectful way. Each side will concede in part to the other’s opinion or desire, and understand why the concession works for now.
But it can be harder to see within yourself, when you’re negotiating both sides of that deal.
The importance of internal compromise…
Inner or internal compromise means that you may have warring struggles going on in your own head. Perhaps something you held dear you’re now giving up due to circumstances or priorities changing. Maybe you have to move away from a place you love, or you gave up a successful career to stay at home with children. You go back to work because your partner is sick.
Through the years, many people have described their lives to me in therapy. Marriages have been cruelly ripped apart, drunk drivers have killed siblings or friends, childhoods have been sabotaged by horrific abuse, addiction has overwhelmed a partner, chronic mental and emotional illness has made life more than difficult, or parents have buried a child. It would be easy for any of these people to become bitter. Life hasn’t been fair or just. They’ve certainly not gotten what they wanted. Their grief can, at times, consume their entire being.
I’ve also listened as these very people have said things like, “I never would’ve had what I have now if it wasn’t for what I’ve been through.” Or, “I didn’t think we’d survive as a couple, but somehow, we’ve managed to become even closer.” Or even, “This nearly killed me; I’m not the same person I was. I never will be that person again. And I can live with that.” “I thought I’d never laugh again. But if I don’t, I’ll miss what I cherish today.”
You can find your resilience. You can find your peace. The “what if’s” can drive you crazy. There’s never a good answer.
My father didn’t wage war with what wasn’t. What never happened. What life hadn’t brought him. He compromised. He conceded. And he focused on what he’d gained.
I hope you do the same.
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Originally published December 31, 2016; updated and republished on June 10, 2023.