Know your opportunity. — Pittacus (6th century B.C.)
There is an ever-present yearning in the human heart to respond more faithfully to the grander impulses within and to realize in our actions the ideals toward which we strive. As we approach the coming year, this yearning grows stronger and becomes a resolve to start anew, to take hold of our lives and be more continually aware of opportunities to work consciously for the good of all. At this turning point in the yearly cycle we have a singular chance to look in both directions, to try to understand the reason for lost opportunities and to look to the future with hope and courage.
Often I ask myself, "What do we really mean by an opportunity?" Obviously it implies more than a fortuitous occasion that seems to favor some and not others. We might say that opportunities are always present, but we must discover them; then again, an opportunity is elusive, often gone before we know it. It would seem that implicit in this word is a profound and yet enigmatic wisdom involving the interworking of the circumstances of life and what we make of them.
What we consider to be an opportunity and how well we avail ourselves of it has a bearing on our inner orientation regarding what we expect from life, and from ourselves. If we regard our world as a "vale of Soul-making," as Keats did, "to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul," then the apparent inconsistencies of fate, the endless trials and sufferings which are our common lot, provide chances for inner awakenment and growth. In this light all that happens to us becomes a positive experience adding to our treasury of spiritual insights.
Life is a hard training school, demanding, but just. Once we feel confident that absolute justice prevails in every aspect of existence and that prompting all life is divine purpose, we are launched on a workable and sound course for living which evolves and deepens as we seek to understand the broad and intricate workings of the universal law of karma, or action and reaction. It is an encouraging thought that everything that happens is of our own making, of our own choice, in this or in some previous incarnation, and also that we have the power to change the quality of a situation by our attitude toward it. The way in which we meet a problem is more meaningful than the problem itself. This aspect, our attitude, applies directly to the philosophy behind the recognition of an opportunity.
It takes the sting out of any adversity to know that it would not have come to us unless there were a need in some way to polish another facet of our nature. Sometimes in retrospect we can understand the changes that came about in our lives as the means by which we received a good jolt and were thereby enabled to start on a road that called forth new qualities and abilities. Time and again this occurs. I can think of a very talented pianist who had begun a concert career when she developed arthritis in her hands and was forced to give it up. Despite her disappointment, she was undaunted, and began to teach youngsters the joy of making music, rapidly and effectively. Her creative method of group teaching was very successful, and although she suffered much pain she radiated the happiness she felt in giving of herself in this way.
There are endless examples of individuals turning what appeared to be a tragedy into a worthwhile opportunity. Just the other day a university paper, UCLA's Daily Bruin, gave an account of a cheerful, accomplished student who quite unintentionally has become an inspiration to many on campus. At the age of 15 he had to undergo a leg amputation due to cancer. This was a terrible shock, but after a few days of depression he made up his mind to "make the best of what's happened. Otherwise, you're going to dig yourself into such a deep hole you'll be digging yourself out of it for the rest of your life!" he said. His sense of humor tells its own story. Although he appreciated the help from family and friends at the time of his setback, he feels the greatest support came and continues to come from "within himself." In his view, while the term "handicapped" might apply to the "physical appearance of inconvenienced people," it does not necessarily describe their "ability or will."
Every human being has the inner resources to handle any predicament, and the surmounting of a difficulty, however small a victory it may seem, helps in the fulfillment of one's self-chosen destiny. Opportunities come in many guises. Sometimes what on the surface appears best is not the condition through which we may learn the most. There is often a conflict between what we think we want and what we intuitively know we need, which results from the discrepancy between our imperfect human self and our illumined higher self, or the Knower within. Frequently, behind what seems to be a fine, improved situation, lies the shadow of temptation. How many examples there are of a promotion, for instance, bringing out the worst in a person instead of the best, a love of power rather than a humane feeling toward others.
Opportunities can be multidimensional, affecting various aspects of our nature simultaneously. We interpret the events of each day in many languages, so to speak: the language of the heart and soul, of the mind, and of the emotions, Our challenge is to give these an in-depth translation into the best action. How may we see opportunities for what they are? Perhaps we are on the road to discovering them when we try to meet the demands of each moment, without resisting, simply accepting what comes philosophically. There are times to speak up, times to remain silent, times to make a change, times to wait. But always it is necessary to be alert, to be focused on the present need. It is rather like the surfer who can ride even the largest wave safely to shore. He cannot alter the course of the wave, nor its size, but if he is skilled in what he is doing, he adapts to the nature of each wave. In a similar way we cannot change the currents of thought and deed we have already set in motion, but we can, if we choose, make the best of the rough as well as the calm waters of experience.
A good friend, in the winter of her years, each time we ask her how she is, responds enthusiastically, "Ready for anything!" And this is not said idly. Through many a crisis she has lived the wisdom of her words. Remarkably enough, this simple expression combines three essential factors which contribute to making the most of an opportunity: a courageous attitude, an inner acceptance of anything that may occur, and an awareness of the value of living in the fullness of each moment as it comes.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1981/January 1982. Copyright © 1982 by Theosophical University Press)