There is always some good—even if only barely perceptible at first—contained within the bad. And we can find it and be cheerful because of it.
At age sixty-seven, Thomas Edison returned home early one evening from another day at the laboratory. Shortly after dinner, a man came rushing into his house with urgent news: A fire had broken out at Edison’s research and production campus a few miles away. Fire engines from eight nearby towns rushed to the scene, but they could not contain the blaze. Fuelled by the strange chemicals in the various buildings, green and yellow flames shot up six and seven stories, threatening to destroy the entire empire Edison had spent his life building. Edison calmly but quickly made his way to the fire, through the now hundreds of onlookers and devastated employees, looking for his son. “Go get your mother and all her friends,” he told his son with childlike excitement. “They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
Don’t worry, Edison calmed him. “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.” That’s a pretty amazing reaction. But when you think about it, there really was no other response. What should Edison have done? Wept? Gotten angry? Quit and gone home? What, exactly, would that have accomplished? You know the answer now: nothing. So he didn’t waste time indulging himself. To do great things, we need to be able to endure tragedy and setbacks. We’ve got to love what we do and all that it entails, good and bad. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens. Of course, there was more than just a little “rubbish” in Edison’s buildings. Years and years of priceless records, prototypes, and research were turned to ash. The buildings, which had been made of what was supposedly fire-proofed concrete, had been insured for only a fraction of their worth. Thinking they were immune to such disasters, Edison and his investors were covered for about a third of the damage. Still, Edison wasn’t heartbroken, not as he could have and probably should have been. Instead, it invigorated him. As he told a reporter the next day, he wasn’t too old to make a fresh start. “I’ve been through a lot of things like this. It prevents a man from being afflicted with ennui.”
Within about three weeks, the factory was partially back up and running. Within a month, its men were working two shifts a day churning out new products the world had never seen. Despite a loss of almost $1 million dollars (more than $23 million in today’s dollars), Edison would marshal enough energy to make nearly $10 million dollars in revenue that year ($200-plus million today). He not only suffered a spectacular disaster, but he recovered and replied to it spectacularly. The next step after we discard our expectations and acceptwhat happens to us, after understanding that certain things—particularly bad things—are outside our control, is this: loving whatever happens to us and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness. It is the act of turning what we mustdo into what we getto do. We put our energies and emotions and exertions where they will have real impact. This is that place. We will tell ourselves: This is what I’ve got to do or put up with? Well, I might as well be happy about it.
We can be Edison, our factory on fire, not bemoaning our fate but enjoying the spectacular scene. And then starting the recovery effort the very next day— roaring back soon enough. Your obstacle may not be so serious or violent. But they are nevertheless significant and outside your control. They warrant only one response: a smile. As the Stoics commanded themselves: Cheerfulness in all situations, especially the bad ones. Who knows where Edison learned this epithet, but he clearly did. Learning not to kick and scream about matters we can’t control is one thing. Indifference and acceptance are certainly better than disappointment or rage. Very few understand or practice that art. But it is only a first step. Better than all of that is love for allthat happens to us, for every situation.
The goal is:
Not: I’m okay with this.
Not: I think I feel good about this.
But: I feel great about it.
Because if it happened, then it was meant to happen, and I am glad that it did when it did. I am meant to make the best of it.
And proceed to do exactly that. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. And why on earth would you chooseto feel anything but good? We can choose to render a good account of ourselves. If the event must occur, Amor fati(a love of fate) is the response. Don’t waste a second looking back at your expectations. Face forward, and face it with a smug little grin. It’s important to look at Edison because he wasn’t passive. He didn’t simply roll over and tolerate adversity. He accepted what happened to him. And he likedit.
It’s a little unnatural, I know, to feel gratitude for things we never wanted to happen in the first place. But we know, at this point, the opportunities and benefits that lie within adversities. We know that in overcoming them, we emerge stronger, sharper, empowered. There is little reason to delay these feelings. To begrudgingly acknowledge later that it was for the best, when we could have felt that in advance because it was inevitable.
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati:that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it . . . but love it. —Nietzsche
You love it because it’s all fuel. And you don’t just want fuel. You need it. You can’t go anywhere without it. No one or nothing can. So you’re grateful for it. That is not to say that the good will always outweigh the bad. Or that it comes free and without cost. But there is always some good—even if only barely perceptible at first—contained within the bad. And we can find it and be cheerful because of it.