Learning to Love the Unexpected

Budapest nearly broke me. Sweaty from the long train ride and shouldering my heavy backpack, I pushed past crowds in the Budapest Keleti station with my friends, fixated on finding that purple machine.

Before arriving, we had read we were supposed to locate purple ticket machines to buy passes for the tram that would take us into the heart of the city. Easy enough.

Just outside the platform, we spotted the ticket machine. But what was supposed to be a simple transaction turned into chaos as a disheveled man hassled us, invading our space and yelling at us in broken English. He claimed to be a government employee, and hovered over my friend’s shoulder watching her every move as she tried to swipe her debit card in the terminal.

Frazzled, we sought shelter in the information office, where actual employees helped us buy our tickets. Finally onboard the tram, we clutched our luggage close and promised to never split up while exploring this city. I wondered if we had made a mistake in coming here.

Unexpected events can teach us lessons and foster resilience

The next morning, we faced a decision: We could wallow in our apartment, or go out and try to make the best of a city we’d heard such wonderful things about.

We chose the latter.

Settling into chairs in a quaint cafe by a park, we feasted on a brunch of eggs, goat cheese, and bread. The sun shone through large windows beside us. We sipped coffee and scribbled in journals. It was peaceful, nothing like the chaos of the day before.

Having our travel expectations shaken was an exercise in resilience. Sure, we could have stormed off and taken the next train out of Hungary, but instead, we accepted that international travel will always surprise us in some way. It was all part of the adventure.

Resilience, the ability to bounce back from difficult situations, is important because it helps us learn from challenges and grow.

Not every unexpected situation will be something as mild as my Budapest example. Some unforeseen events are downright devastating. Getting laid off from work, losing a friend, or the ending of a relationship come to mind.

In an article for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova writes, “It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?”

And the thing is, it’s difficult to see the lessons we can learn from adversity while it’s happening to us. Only after the dust has settled and the pain has eased, can we look back and glean meaning from the unexpected.

We can’t control everything—and we don’t need to

It feels counterintuitive, but there is a weird sense of peace that comes once you stop trying to control everything. Letting go is liberating.

One of the most important facts I let sink in last year is that I cannot control what happens to me. I can only control how I react to it.

Now, that seems obvious, maybe even hokey (I know that’s what I thought when I first heard that). But think about it, when’s the last time you lost your cool because something wasn’t going according to plan?

And tell me, did lashing out actually make anything better?

A book that touches on this subject is The End of Stress, by Don Joseph Goewey. In it, Goewey talks about using neuroscience-backed methods to train your brain to eliminate the stress response and improve your well-being. Basically, he talks about how to change your attitude.

If you’re tempted to write him off as Pollyannaish, consider this. His book was influenced by a time in his life when he lost his job and was diagnosed with a brain tumor—all in the same month.

That experience was the catalyst for learning to change his attitude. He writes about a period before the surgery to remove his tumor, when he would wake up every morning at two or three, filled with complete terror. But soon, he had a realization.

Goewey writes: “Then one night I reached a point where I questioned which was worse: the dire problems that might happen to me in the future, or the abject fear that was happening in me every day. The answer was clear; fear was worse.”

Since he had to have the tumor removed, there was no use in him stressing out over it. He couldn’t change the fact it had to happen. All he could change was how he reacted beforehand. That inspired him to work at shifting his mindset.

So the next time you feel your day spinning out of control because of an unexpected event, instead of brooding over it, focus on changing your attitude about the situation.

Let go of control, take hold of life

On our last night in Budapest, my friends and I lounged outside a restaurant along the Danube River. I sipped a bright orange aperol spritz, holding the round glass up before my eyes and watching the candlelight glint against it as a singer serenaded us in foreign words.

“I don’t want to leave,” I sighed to my travel partners. None of us did, and that was definitely unexpected given our unpleasant introduction to the city.

And that’s what I appreciate about international travel. Dropped into a new place, surrounded by a language you don’t understand, you will inevitably encounter the unexpected. You can either deem it a failure and be miserable, or call it an adventure and make the most of it.

Learning to love the unexpected is all about relinquishing your need for control, so you can embrace your love for life.