Option B: When Life Doesn’t Run to Plan

Posted by on Feb 27, 2022 in Blog | 0 comments

woman in blue and white crew neck shirt

In their very readable book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explore how to build resilience and find joy when option A for our life is no longer available. For Sheryl Sandberg it started when she discovered her husband Dave collapsed on the gym floor – never to recover. She suddenly found herself part of the enormous Option B club – that multitude of people who don’t get their first choice, but who find that it is still possible to have meaning and happiness when only their second (or third) choice is available.

The book is an easy read – written with deep feeling and heart. Personal stories fill its pages. Beneath the accounts, some important insights are explored. Though I won’t limit myself to the book, I thought it worth exploring the topic.

Sandberg and Grant discuss psychologist Martin Seligman’s insight that after a major setback, there are three P’s that often impede recovery:

Personalization is when we believe we are to blame for what has happened. Now sometimes we are partly responsible – though it is unusual to be totally responsible for something. Because her husbands sudden death was linked to coronary artery disease, Sheryl second guessed their diet and her failure to note a problem. She took on too much responsibility for what happened and found herself apologising to everyone. Actually, while we can do our best to help others in life, we aren’t responsible for them or for the choices they make. Nor do we know the impact that decisions will have – after all, some people eat junk food endlessly and live to be a hundred (and actually, in the case of Sheryl’s husband, he was a fairly healthy eater who worked out at the gym.)

While we should be willing to face what is ours to face (and rationalising past poor decisions is a quick way to ensure they will be repeated), very few tragedies follow an “a leads to b” line. Even if the “fault” seems to be squarely in our court (“if only I hadn’t driven while drunk”) there are usually a lot of other factors that were in play which we should remember. Strange as it might sound, we sometimes need to snap ourselves out of regret lest we wallow in it, rather than face the new opportunities which lie ahead for us.

There are also many tragic things that happen in life for which we have zero responsibility. Those who have been sexually abused as children should not wonder what it was that they did. They were victims, not villains. Sudden illness can strike anyone, a global financial crash can cripple you even if your investments have been made responsibly, and earthquakes and tsunamis dispassionately eliminate those in their reach. To keep asking “what was it that I did?” is natural (for we are taught to think cause and effect), but often it isn’t like that at all, and we delay recovery by wandering down that path. Often the only thing we have done is to be alive and trying to make a go of life. No blame should be attached to that.

Pervasiveness is when we believe that what has happened will impact every area of our life. Actually, our children’s concerts might be just as much fun even though we have lost our job, an evening spent watching Vera is just as enjoyable (there, I have alerted you to one of my favourite detective shows), green chicken curry is still delicious, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major remains the most beautiful piece of music ever written. While it is helpful to note what has been lost because of what happened, it is equally important to spot what isn’t. The importance of faith, and friendship and family are often underlined and sometimes the disappearance of option A reminds us that we have overlooked some A+++ things which we should treasure more.

True, some losses remind us that life is more interconnected than we realised. Those who have a major health crisis often discover that what they have taken for granted (good health) supports so much of what they do in life, and that its loss has very long tentacles. For all that, it can be helpful to look squarely in the face of what has happened and to ask, “And what isn’t impacted by this.” The list is usually long. For those who follow Jesus, a major part of the answer is always, “I am a child of God… now and forever.” While we can say that so quickly that it sounds glib, it is never a shallow answer. To the contrary, it is the deepest truth of our life – a truth to build our future on.

Permanence is the belief that the impact of the event and its spinoff effects will last forever. And immediately after a major loss – like a sudden death (or even more hauntingly, a suicide) – it feels as though there will be no happy tomorrow, and the best one can hope for is a greyish hue and sombre tones. For Sheryl Sandberg, realising that her children still laughed often, even though they missed their dad, alerted her that great sadness does not have to be 24/7. Happiness and hope are interesting things, and often sneak up on us when we are least expecting them. When option A has disappeared, we often feel a little guilty that we experience joy, almost feeling that happiness is a betrayal of the person or cause lost. But of course it isn’t. It is a reminder that while living in the present, humans are able to look both backwards and forwards. When we are healthy, the forward look has the stronger pull – and so it should. Followers of Jesus are reminded of Revelation 21:5 “Behold, I make all things new.” While this is an eschatological promise, it is also a reminder that God finds a way to renew and restore what has been lost. Or as Joel 2:25 so beautifully puts it, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.”

What does this all mean in practice?

Of the many things lost in the course of life, the loss of our dreams is perhaps the saddest. Perhaps you remember a day when life was all about your dream, and you had such high hopes. But then option A slipped away, and for some, so did option B and C and perhaps even D. How do we move forward when even the thought of dreaming again brings out the cynic in us?

An Indian proverb says, “All the flowers of tomorrow are contained in the seeds of today.” Sometimes the most beautiful seeds are formed from the sadness, regret and pain of yesterday and the loss of Plan A. One of the more helpful pieces of advise I’ve been given is, “Don’t confuse the chapter for the book.” Indeed, the best books have some impossibly difficult chapters. Very few books announce and then achieve Option A. But Option B often turns out to be more interesting. Some even conclude that Option B is better than Option A – although in the end it is probably better not to compare, but to simply live the life that opens for us – a life that in some parts is under our control, and in other parts is out of our hands. Which is why it is best to hold every option lightly, and to trust in the loving hands of God – and to do so even while we diligently work at making option B glorious.

As always, nice chatting…

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