Opportunity knocks

Opportunity knocks 

Sometimes a shift in perspective is all it takes to turn a negative experience into a positive

Life offers infinite possibilities and choices. It’s natural to wonder what would have been, if we had made different choices at different points in time.

One of the rewards of learning history is that, with hindsight and perspective, we get to observe the choices others had made and the trajectories that followed. We then ask ourselves what our choices would have been, if faced with the same set of conditions and challenges.

When Hollywood actor Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the recent Academy Awards, he showed the world his anger at the comedian’s ill-judged joke at his wife’s expense. The slap reverberated around the world and resulted in a 10-year ban for Smith attending Academy events, as well as putting potential future career opportunities at risk.

Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, a hair-loss condition that many experience as both disfiguring and traumatic. We can only imagine how devastating it is for those affected – especially those in the public eye. It’s unclear whether Rock was fully aware of Pinkett Smith’s medical status.

While violence was not justified, it’s obvious that the pain of the perceived insults was so overwhelming to Smith that he lost his reason and resorted to aggression as seemingly the only option available in the moment. Afterwards, he said: “Love will make you do crazy things.”

In response, the Alopecia UK charity said that “dealing with unwelcome remarks and being the butt of jokes is sadly an all too real part” of having the condition, which “adds to the distress and challenges” faced by sufferers.

Taking another path

To my surprise, the charity also offered an alternative acceptance speech for Will Smith:

“… In a society where it is unacceptable to make jokes about someone’s race, sexuality or disability, perhaps it’s time we extended that to include any visible difference…”

“There is another reason for me to call out such a joke. All across the USA and the rest of the world, millions of children and teenagers are living with alopecia. Some of them are unfortunately having to deal with bullies who make jokes and jibes about their hair loss. This should not be happening in 2022 and yet it is. This month, tragically, a 12-year-old girl with alopecia took her life because she felt she could no longer face the bullies who were making her life miserable. All because she looked different…”

This is thought provoking.

Smith is one of the most talented and popular actors in the world. As an actor, he is in the business of storytelling. What if, instead of anger and violence, he had chosen to use his platform to invite us to step into his wife’s shoes and tell the world about the depths of anxiety endured by men, women and children suffering with hair loss?

His speech could have inspired compassion and understanding from the audience – and raised awareness of alopecia in the process.

He had the option to transform the perceived humiliation, the personal pain, to greater good. It would have led to a completely different outcome both for the evening and everyone involved.

Changing our response

It’s easy to say all this now, of course – the gift of hindsight often makes us wiser after the event.

Buddhism teaches that if we cannot change the external circumstances, we can at least alter the way we respond to them.

The New York Times bestselling author and Buddhist teacher Susan Piver discovered as much when she found herself unable to deal with a painful relationship. 

Unable to find a solution, the author of The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom For Modern Relationships, turned to the Tibetan Buddhist sage Tulku Thondup Rinpoche for advice.

“I expected this brilliant scholar to give me a doorway to open, advice that would make the problem go away,” she has recalled. “Instead Rinpoche told me, ‘Think of how much compassion you will have in the future for others who are struggling with this, too.’”

It was a life-changing moment for Piver. By connecting to others she saw her own suffering in a new light: “I went from thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me? How come I can’t fix this?’ to realising everyone suffers.” This put her suffering into perspective and enabled her to feel greater compassion for herself and others. 

In another example of transforming a negative life experience into a positive one, Lindsey Roy, CMO of Hallmark Cards, has spoken openly about how a boating accident that nearly killed her gave her a hidden advantage. One leg was amputated and she is left with other injuries. But, she says, the pain she suffered as she struggled to recover led to her waking up to her authentic, vulnerable self. Sharing her vulnerability with others was her hidden advantage, both at work and at home.

She tells a charming story about how, one day, her four-year-old son brought her his favourite cuddly caterpillar toy to make her feel better during her recovery. The caterpillar was missing a leg. In that moment she saw that her loss could be her children’s gain: “Maybe going through this will help my kids grow up really open to diversity, really empathetic and caring.”

Stories enable us to walk in each other’s shoes for a little while and see the world as others experience it from then on. As Roy has said, “If life is truly about telling stories, why not use our stories to really connect with each other?”

The alopecia charity’s hypothetical speech reminds us that one of the alternative ways to transform personal pain is to empathise with others in the same situation and seek not only to relieve your personal pains but also others’ sufferings for greater good.  

Regardless of the pain we suffer, more likely than not we are not alone. Someone somewhere is experiencing the same kind of pain, or has done. We have a choice to turn pain into lessons and suffering into blessings. The choice is in our hands.