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Tragedy, Tough Times And Transformation


Let me start by saying, I really don’t know how it all ends, this piece and life itself.

I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer, but I’ve got questions and lots of them. I’ve actually been feeling this way for a while, perhaps not as intensely. But everything sort of came to a head recently when I heard about one more, tragic, senseless, insane story. Why?

A few days ago, a man walked into a mom and pop pharmacy on Long Island and shot four people, execution style, before stealing a bunch of pills. Four people who woke up that morning, thinking the day was going to be like any other, two of them just customers who stopped in. Horrible cliché but so true, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In just the last couple of weeks, an acquaintance has had an old colleague die unexpectedly while a friend has just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Both men, young, vibrant and with families. Another friend of mine had a co-worker die in his early 30’s, having not even lived half his life.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Okay look, I know I’m old enough to know better than to ask questions like that. If you are a person of faith, the answer might be, “Because it’s God’s will.” But how can that be? Is there meaning in suffering? Are there lessons to be learned and for whom? Do bad things force something of a quantum leap in development?

I wish I had an easy answer. I do think facing trials force us to dig deeper than we ever have before and look at life in a way we hadn’t before. They shake us up and make us realize instead of living, we had been existing, surviving instead of thriving, settling instead of shooting for the stars.

When I lost my job nearly five years ago, I went out on the speaking circuit where I talked a lot about this concept of having to use every single “tool” in your survival shed, of digging deeper than you ever knew possible to become the person you never knew you could be. In the year following my departure from that morning show, I thought that’s exactly what I had been doing. In reality, I wasn’t even close!  The year after my job loss/mastectomy was tough and the one that followed was even worse. The next year I was testing still new lows and year four, well, you guessed it, was the worst of all. But when all the shiny, sparkly things were stripped away, when no one would return my calls, when there was no big paycheck and when agents and friends turned their backs, well that’s when I was ready for the rebuild.

Now, a moment of unvarnished honesty and for this, I have to share something that until now was private. In the year before I left that morning show gig, I was seeing a therapist because I was at a crossroads. I was unbearably unhappy; I didn’t like my job anymore and hated being someone I was not.  I was struggling with whether I was on the path to becoming Diane Sawyer or Oprah, not the women you understand, but their disciplines. And I was stuck, held in place by a pair of golden handcuffs (the money was good) and fear. Well guess what happened when this baby bird was pushed from the nest? I learned to fly because I had to. It was a pretty hard fall and one I’m incredibly thankful for.

See I could not have made this move, undergone this dramatic transformation I have until I was ready. And I wasn’t ready until all the stuff, the shit if you will, was gone. Luckily for me, the shitty people and pretense all went away when the big gig did, leaving in their wake, the real deal. And that my friends, is a strong foundation.

Think abou the times in your own life where you’ve had the most personal growth. It was freakin’ hard wasn’t it? No one wishes for difficulties, even with their promise of exponential growth. At our core we operate from a position of self-preservation and fear. When you step outside your comfort zone, there’s a chance you’ll fail. You might lose the big paycheck, you might have to struggle, you might lose friends and family, it might hurt. Scratch that. It WILL hurt. You will lose some of those things. But when they’re gone and the dust is settling, you’ll wipe yourself off, put one foot in front of the other and walk. Slow and unsteady at first but you get stronger with each stride. Before you know it, you’ve developed a steady gait that’s just shy of a full on sprint. You’re clear, focused and less apt to be distracted as you run toward your new goal. As for me, I’ve just finished lacing up my tennis shoes.

I think the role of hard times is to get every single synapse firing again! They shake the dust off and along with it, the rose tinted glasses and allow us to see life for exactly what it is; ugly and beautiful, difficult and rewarding, joyous and at times, unbearably sad. The trick is to understand that like everything in this life, it’s about balance. Tough stuff is like strong medicine; we choke it down, even though it tastes awful because it makes us better. When we’re sick, all we can think of how good it feels to be well; when we’re struggling, it helps us recognize that which we have taken for granted.

By no means is this meant to minimize the pain and sadness of those people I mentioned earlier or anyone else. As I said before, I don’t even know where this meandering piece or life ends. No one said life was going to be easy and if they did, they were lying. But we have two choices. We can expect an easy ride and wring our hands and lament when it is not. Or we can lace up our shoes and start walking the journey, soak in the splendor of life and the people in it. Learn from every experience and dare to feel the joy and pain in every cell. Because it’s in feeling the gamut of human emotion that we know we are truly getting our money’s worth from this thing called life.

What about you, do you recall the times you did the most learning and growing? How do you approach hard times, with fear and trepidation or with open arms, anticipating the lessons that will come? Okay, let’s share!


  1. yang

    June 24, 2011 at 10:32 am

    We must learn, if we live.

  2. Tami

    June 24, 2011 at 10:44 am

    I really hate that phrase. “Why do bad things happen to good people.” Are these REALLY good people? Do we really know if these people are good other than our interaction with them. There are lots of people that seem like good people, but do we really know? Just because someone is a pastor, a volunteer, a college student working toward a degree, a politician, someone who helps the homeless, do we know how people really live their lives behind closed doors. I think bad things happen to ALL people good or bad, whatever that definition is. People will leave this earth good and bad and bad.

  3. Rene Syler

    June 24, 2011 at 10:47 am

    @Tami: well I choose to believe that most people are good at their core. It does sort of suck that after pouring my heart out into this piece, the very fist comment is so negative. Thanks anyway

  4. Remote Patrolled

    June 24, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Tami – I think you may have missed the point of the post a bit!

    Everyone has a bit of good – and bad – in them. I happen to believe the point of life is to work on our bad points and grow from them. And growth is what Rene’s piece was ultimately about…

  5. Christina Gleason @ Cutest Kid Ever

    June 24, 2011 at 11:01 am

    My dad’s feelings about his cancer were hard for me to accept at first. Now that he’s in remission, it’s a little easier to swallow. But he believes that he got cancer for a reason. He feels that his cancer helped make our family closer and stronger, it helped him live life more fully, and he hopes that it had a positive effect on his children’s spirituality. My beliefs are not the same as my dad’s, but I do believe that having people from all over the world praying for him certainly helped in his treatment and recovery.

  6. Cecile

    June 24, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Thank you Renee, for writing this piece. Even if it only helps you, it is a blessing. But know that it was what I needed to read today, affirmation that there is another side to pain, doubt, indecision, loss of direction. I recently lost my job and even before that happened things were rough but I won’t go into all of that. Suffice it to say that your words spoke to me and have provided encouragement.

    We can get stuck on semantics like Tami, or we can acknowledge that tragedies impact us (at least some of us) everyday and it doesn’t matter if we know how good the person is or not. They had lives, families, dreams. These tragedies bring forth front and center, our own mortality. They can lead to depression, or motivate us to move forward or both.

    Thanks for sharing your journey, nice to know others have walked the road I’m on.


  7. Rene Syler

    June 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

    @Cecile: Thank you. I would just encourage you to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’ll use another cliche that might be hated too but it’s true, which is why it’s cliche. Tough times don’t last, tough people do. Stay strong and thanks for your kind words!

  8. Pamela

    June 24, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Renee, having gone through many adversities I’ve often questioned “why me?” But, the pathway to personal fulfillment is paved with trials, which is where we discover our true selves- good or bad. I’ve learned to accept each day as a gift, as life is not promised. Thank u for your heart warming story.

  9. Rene Syler

    June 24, 2011 at 11:22 am

    @pamela: thanks for sharing this. You know once I heard someone say, no one ever says “Why me” when grace and blessings are abundant.. so true, isn’t it? I guess that pendulum swings both ways 🙂

  10. Rebecca

    June 24, 2011 at 11:31 am

    I generally always keep my opinons about Good and Bad to myself. But as a former fellow journalist – I’ve witnessed lots of bad things and as a person who’s lived 40-something years, I’ve experienced my share of take-your-breath-away heartbreak and disappointment.

    I am always offended when I hear people say “God was really with me” and then go on to explain how they were spared some tragedy or hardship. Because implicit in that comment is that God somehow abandoned those who weren’t spared the pain.

    I will only say it is my belief you don’t find God’s grace in ‘answered prayers’. You find it in between.

  11. Margie Crouch

    June 24, 2011 at 11:45 am

    I agree with you Rene’ – @Tami is missing the main point. Good ? Bad? doesn’t really matter when your life, or anyone’s life has been cut short by someone else’s violent reaction to their addiction. These people didn’t have the chance to reflect, change, examine, transform… but when met by tradegy, we still do have that opportunity. And how wonderfully human it is to be so touched by someone else’s tragic death. You have honored whomever these people were, and really who are any of us to judge, with your sorrow and sensitive reflection.
    To your thoughtful question – I would like to think that trials and tragedies have impacted my life and response to life’s challenges for the better. I have had my fair share and am grateful for the positive outcomes that I actively choose to seek out (while often still struggling with the day to day realities). It is a choice we can make – controlling your response is often all we have control over but first the synapses must fire! Thanks for your thoughtful reflection

  12. Brian Gagnon

    June 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    My hard times started more than three years ago and they continue. Like you, I have a pretty good foundation and great family support. Those who know me know that I’m good at whatever I try to do. The problem is getting someone who doesn’t know me to look past the idea that I’m 56 years old and don’t seem to be the newest whizzbang. I live in an emotional limbo, somewhere between hope and indifference. As soon as I think I’ve seen it all, another blow comes. Men define themselves by what they do and now I’m losing my sense of definition. “I dunno” has been said so often it is becoming my mantra. It is all exhausting. I’ve applied for jobs wherever I can find them and that’s just not good enough. If I knew my “Plan B” I’d be in it, but I don’t and I’m not. It’s very frustrating. Thank you for letting me rant.

  13. Will Jones

    June 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    You know I’m a stubborn, hard headed, man-type of man. As such, I like to think I stand pretty solid, and that it takes a good bit to shake me. As you know, I recently had a something happen that put me in a hole so deep I wasn’t sure I’d make it back up. I won’t get into specifics, but I’ve had a few days since then where I was barely able to get to my knees to pray for the strength to stand up.
    Thank God for folks like you who put out enough light to help folks like me find their path through the darkness.

    Very seldom do I read anything that hits so close to home that I’m fighting back tears when I’m finished.

    Even more seldom do I print off a piece, fold it up, and stick it in my pocket, just in case I need to gather strength from it again throughout my day.

    I just did both.

    Thank you.

  14. Rene Syler

    June 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    @Will: Damn you (shaking fist madly!) now you’ve made ME cry! You do that a lot, LOL. Hang in there. We all go through it. We have to. It keeps us from sleepwalking through the important stuff in our lives. You will emerge healthy, whole and even stronger on the other side. I KNOW it!!

  15. Traci

    June 24, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! for writing this and tweeting it to me today. I needed to hear these sage words of wisdom. I needed to be reminded that things WILL get better. This week has been such a professional challenge for me – I was told in no uncertain terms that my attitude at works sucks, that I suck at what I do, that I lack initiative and leadership skills and that if I didn’t go home and think about how my attitude would change, then I would most certainly be fired from my current job. While I wanted to stand up and QUIT right then and there…I held my ground. I am ME! I am not perfect, I am good at what I do…and damn it all…they are NOT going to win. They will have to fire me. (And I’m quite certain they are going to very soon). Although I’m still hoping I find a new gig very soon so I can walk in and say “two weeks notice? No freaking way. Here’s my two minute warning – I quit.”

    Thank you again for this post.
    I know I am dealing with all of this crap for a reason. And I will be better in the long run.

  16. m.e. johnson

    June 24, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I like this article a lot, Rene. I have been thru some stuff and look back and wonder how I did that, but I did. Had to.

    Maybe off subject but I wonder if those people had a ‘hunch’, ‘feeling’ not to go into the store and ignored it. Gut feelings have saved my butt plenty of times, or led me to a place where I met/found exactly who I needed to see.

    Some people believe there are no coincidences/you go when it’s your time, when the purpose you were put here for has been done. I don’t know… maybe so.

    I wish everyone here the best. I made it, sometimes with few resources but always with at least one true friend. Rene, your #14 ans. is spot on.

  17. Margit

    June 24, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    @Will: Funny, I was in the middle of printing it when I read your comment. I too want to be able to read this fabulous piece again and again.

    Rene, Thank you for pouring your heart out. I consider it a gift. Just last week I was feeling sorry for myself when I remembered that at that very moment there were two parents who were buring their 14 year old (18 days shy of her 15th bday) daughter who was to be a freshman at my daughter’s high school in the fall. She was at an 8th grade graduation party with her entire class and their families (small catholic school) when she got out of the pool, collapsed and died. I can not stop thinking about these parents and the hell they must be going through. It made me stop and realize I have been existing/surviving this past year…oh, the things I’ve gone through. But, you know what? I’m alive. I’m healthy, and so is my family. I remembered that I am a fighter. Life is hard as hell sometimes but we must pick ourselves up and be better. Thank you for reminding me that it isn’t easy, but so worth it. These are to quotes I found this week. I printed them and taped them to my bathroom mirror. I’ll share because someone might love them as much as I do.

    Ever tried.
    Ever failed.
    No matter.
    Try again.
    Fail again.
    Fail better.
    Samuel Becket

    I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.

  18. Margit

    June 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    This is a quote that my kids keep on their desk bulletin boards because I want them to read it everyday. I also have it on my bathroom mirror.

    Promise yourself to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. Look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true. Think only of the best, work only for the best, and expect only the best. Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. Give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others. Live in the faith that the whole world is on your side so long as you are true to the best that is in you!

    -Christian D.Larson

  19. DawnKA

    June 24, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Wow!! This is an awesome post!! When I decided to start my own business and follow what I call my assignment, it made everyone upset, nervous, anxious, you name it – everything but encouraging. I have had my moments where I questioned myself only to find that there was nothing else that I wanted or could do at this point – so I forge ahead. There are those moments where everything seems to be going great only to be met with an abrupt halt. Challenges/hurdles/detours are all apart of my assignment. Every day I am still learning yet moving forward. My conversations with God are not always nice either 🙂 but he created me and knows how I am – so he’s okay with it.

  20. Skeeweedeeva

    June 24, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Rene-ALl I can muster right now is “Thanks AGAIN!” Although we’ve never met, you and your words(public and private) have been an inspiration and blessing to me, especially over the past year. I have really grown up!

    Christina Gleason – I agree with your dad! I’m a cancer survivor also and am in remission. I am BETTER because of the breast cancer! While my journey has been difficult, I wouldn’t change a single aspect.

    Again, Rene, Thanks!!! Your transparancy is SO refreshing!!!

  21. sarena

    June 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    If someone would have shown me the script for my life, I would have fainted when I read over the scene I’m currently living! ! No way am I strong enough, brave enough, knowledgeable enough, to handle parenting a child with Autism. (Enter Rene Syler and GEM stage right.) Almost a year ago I submitted an article, The Judgment Free Zone. In it I addressed how it feels to be on this journey. Rene (and Richard Drew) posted our story and from that the most amazing thing happened. People understood! People needed to talk about it! I realized then that we were not on this aisle by ourselves. Now, we have a website ,, devoted to strengthening and informing others about children with special needs. We may never know why we go through what we go through but if there is any comfort, it is that we help people along the way… (I’ll stop here as today is not my scheduled cry day!)

  22. Rene Syler

    June 24, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    @sarena: well, you and Will have both made me tear up and it is not MY scheduled cry day! xxoo

  23. Felicia

    June 25, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    I just know your speaking to me! Well done. Bravo!

  24. Elisa Malinovitz

    June 25, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    In his book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner explains that G-d doesn’t have control over everything. That we could have had an all powerful G-d or an all Good G-d, and we have the latter. When we get sick, Kushner explains, G-d feels sadness. God doesn’t have the power to control every cell in our body, or the will of someone else, but G-d is on our side. S/he mourns with us when we lose someone we love, and feels pain when we are hurt. But G-d is all good and loving and is here for us.

  25. Sara (PassPorter Mom SV)

    June 27, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Yes, I’m a bit nuts but I actually do ask, “Why me?” when good things happen! But that’s my particular pathology. I rarely ask “Why me?” when bad things happen, since I my POV (point of view) tends more towards the fatalistic anyway. But when tragedies like the LI shooting occur or a child dies, 9/11, etc. I find myself questioning everything. Regardless of a person’s behavior – good or bad – every person has worth. Everyone has lessons to teach.

    And that is one of the reasons I enjoy this site. I gain perspective from the different points of view in the posts and the comments. Do I agree with all of them? No. But like I said, everyone has something to teach. And I just pray that those whose lives were lost too soon had a chance to pass on their lessons.

  26. Cody Williams

    June 30, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Just read this one Rene. Power writing. Gut wrenching reading. Timely too. Today a lunch, sitting in a TGIF my kids starting playing a word game, out of nowhere they started this association:
    “Without sad there would be no happy.”
    “without tears there would be no laughter.”
    “With sour there would be no sweet.”
    “Without hot there would be no cold.”
    “Without salt there would be no pepper.”
    “Without good there would be no bad.”
    “Without sorry there would be no joy.”
    “Without boring there would be no fun.”

    These came out of the mouths of a 9 and a 11-year-old. And then I read this piece. The Universe is trying to tell me something. And I get it.

    Life is joyous because sometimes it’s not.

    Death happens. It’s us, people, who ascribe the attributes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to it. Not God. Life happens. Enjoy it when you can. Rejoice in all your blessings and who you are. Cry went the time calls for it. Hug somebody.

    Accept hugs, when offered with heartfelt sincerity.

  27. Cody Williams

    June 30, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    [better edited version]
    Just read this one Rene. Powerful writing. Gut wrenching reading. Timely too. Today at lunch, sitting in a TGIF, my kids starting playing a word game, out of nowhere they started this association:
    “Without sad there would be no happy.”
    “without tears there would be no laughter.”
    “With sour there would be no sweet.”
    “Without hot there would be no cold.”
    “Without salt there would be no pepper.”
    “Without good there would be no bad.”
    “Without sorry there would be no joy.”
    “Without boring there would be no fun.”

    These came out of the mouths of a 9 and a 11-year-old. And then I read this piece. The Universe is trying to tell me something. And I get it.

    Life is joyous, because sometimes it’s not.

    Death happens. It’s us, people, who ascribe the attributes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to it. Not God. Life happens. Enjoy it when you can. Rejoice in all your blessings and who you are. Cry went the time calls for it. Hug somebody.

    Accept hugs, when offered with heartfelt sincerity.

  28. M W Fisher

    July 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks, Rene for sharing this piece.
    I like many, have definitely been through some life altering changes this year.
    I was devasted by something that happened 3 weeks ago… faith keeps me from sinking too low, and I am beginning to bounce back.
    And yes, I do know and believe that we learn from “Life’s Challenges”.
    As the saying goes…. “What doesn’t kill us…makes us stronger!”

  29. Rene Syler

    July 28, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    @M W: The only thing I can say is to hang on. Life changes on a dime, in either direction many times. The one thing I would urge you to do is get rest. Thing always look more bleak when you’re fatigued. Hang in there!

  30. Alicia Webster

    July 28, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    We are actually going through some tough times right now. My husband’s mom died in January, and my mom died on the 5th as you know (thanks btw Rene, for your kind words when I talked about her drug addiction), and we have suffered some major financial blows, and life has been kicking us in the a** all year long. But at the end of each day, we are soooo grateful to have food to eat and shelter from this insane heat, and a soft bed to lie on. We may not have much these days, but we have love, and we have hope, and we have each other. Besides, I’m with you on this. I think GOD or the fates or whoever you believe in occasionally throws a humdinger in your direction to see what you’re made of, and you either rise to meet the challenge or you fall down and never get up. I am just so happy to be alive, even in the midst of these troubles, that that alone has to be”good enough” sometimes.

  31. Rene Syler

    July 28, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    @Alicia: Oy that’s a lot to take on at once. Sometimes it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all that’s going wrong, we forget to take a look at what’d going right. You did that beautifully hear. You’re smart, you have potential, you have the support of your husband and you will make it through this too. One step at a time, one day at a time 🙂

  32. juli

    July 28, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    ….your eyes open, and you begin a new day.

  33. M W Fisher

    July 28, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    @ Brian Gagnon – If you have not already found employment –
    The link from AARP and the other links are job sites for those of us who are 50+
    The employers that advertise are usually looking for mature candidates. Good Luck in your job search.

  34. That Writing Chic

    July 29, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Sometimes in the midst of all that is life, the thing that we need to focus on most is growth as Rene so eloquently detailed above. I know first hand the loss of a job and the need to rebrand and start a new career for myself in the midst of personal turmoil, loss, etc.. It’s true that those trials test wills that you never knew you had inside of you. I thank you, Rene for your honesty about therapy – I’ve been there a time or two myself. One of the things that separates those who are successful from those who continually struggle to find the answers is the ability to look within OURSELVES honestly and sometimes we need a guide for that. Life can be overwhelming, between family, work and trying to figure out exactly where we fit in the grander scheme of things, especially after enduring tragedy. For me my personal relationship with God is REAL and has kept me sane when I thought I would lose my mind and couldn’t go any further. Have I ever questioned God? I’d be a liar to say that I hadn’t. However, I have learned that there is a lesson to be learned from every tragedy – even if the lesson is to be grateful that I have lived yet another day of life to try my best to get it right!

  35. M W Fisher

    July 30, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    LOL….Rene, Thanks for your response.
    I wish that my “current “Life Challenge” could be as “Trivial” as a “lack of sleep”!
    But Thanks…

  36. Joy Haddocks James

    August 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Dear Rene:

    I enjoyed above article on Life and transformation. as for sharing how I approach life. Well I just take it one day at a time. I do not embrace it with enthusiasm or trepidation. I just deal with it day by day as it comes.
    Also just a short comment on Why bad things happen to good people. I do not agree that it is God’s will (yes, people happen to be in wrong place at wrong time). I believe it is due to imperfection and sin. Because the Bible states in this world you will have trouble. This system of things we are now living in is not what God purposed. However he has an appointed time when He will step in and rid this world of wickedness. God promises a future hope for the righteous. A World free of sin where perfection will be restored …therefore no more sickness, death, etc.
    So As the Old folks say Hang in there and keep the hope.

    I just found your website and I will enjoy catching up on your articles.


    Ms Joy H James

  37. jodifur

    August 25, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. My husband was laid off 6 weeks ago. And I’m struggling to figure out what happens next. This was so what I needed to read right now. You always have the words, right when I need them.

  38. Anonymous

    November 3, 2011 at 7:39 am

    Give me a moment to gather my thoughts….

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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