A class of teenagers are all waiting patiently early one Monday morning for their biology teacher to arrive for the morning’s lesson to see him walk in wearing his customary lab coat with a glass bottle of milk. He walks over to the lab experiment table and asks the class to come and gather around him. He holds the bottle of milk over the sink where they usually pour out the remnants of their biological experiments and all the kids are looking at him and wondering what interesting discovery they could possibly make about something as benign as a bottle of milk when he suddenly drops the bottle into the sink and its smashes with a loud crash, the glass shattering instantly and the milk gurgles down the drain. Some jump back with fright, and others look at him with mild surprise wondering if his hand slipped, looking for some sign of embarrassment on his face but see a slightly surprising wry smile and questioning glint in his eyes as he looks at them and says rather loudly, “Don’t cry over spilt milk!”
The class laughs for a bit, thinking their teacher has gone slightly mad or maybe had one too many last night. Their teacher continues: “You’ve heard that before haven’t you?” Some nod, other’s say “yes” out loud. “But what does it really mean to you?” he asks.
One of the girls says “It means we shouldn’t get upset if something happens that we can’t change”.
“Very good”, the teacher says. “Yes, that is true. But how do you not get upset about something that happens that is actually quite upsetting? I really wanted to drink that bottle of milk! I saved up all week for it and was so looking forward to drinking it and now it’s gone. I’m devastated. It’s so unfair! Why did it have to slip through my fingers and break? Why is God always punishing me? What’s wrong with me anyway? Why am I so damn clumsy? It’s all my fault, I can never get anything right. Just when I finally look like I’m going to get what I really want it gets taken away from me. I’m such a failure, a complete and utter failure and this is just another example of it!”
The class looks at him, some smiling, some not quite sure how to react. Is he being serious? Is he “taking the piss” or has he truly lost his marbles altogether?
“But, it’s just some milk, Sir” one of the boys in the class says.
“Yes, but it was MY milk and it’s not fair!” he replies.
“But you can just go get some more Sir” one of the other girls in the class tries.
“No, I can’t. I used up the money that I had saved for this. I have to wait for another whole week. It’s so unfair. Life is so unfair!” he says in mock dismay.
He asks the class to resume their seats and as they do he hoists himself onto the experiment table and sits with his legs dangling over the edge as he would often do when discussing something with the class.
Once they are all seated he says, “So again, why do you think we have the saying ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’?”.
One of his thoughtful students who doesn’t often speak up in class raises his hand.
“Well, Sir. The way I see it is that the saying is trying to teach us how to deal with some of the accidents in life or when things just don’t seem to go our way. It is also there to teach us that once something is done, there is nothing we can do that will undo it. All our moaning and crying won’t bring the milk back again”.
“Not one drop of it, Wayne. Not one drop”, says the teacher smiling. He goes on, “There is another quote that is quite famous that you guys may not have heard of which was written by Omar Khayyam which says: ‘The Moving Finger writes; and having writ Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel even half a line; Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it’”.
“It’s the same idea isn’t it? When Omar says all thy piety he means that no matter how humble you try to be or how religious you are, or even how funny you try to be about it, when it’s done, it’s done. And you know what, feeling guilty about it is actually useless too. I have always thought that guilt is a useless emotion. You know why? Because unless there is something you can do about what has happened it actually serves no purpose whatsoever other than to make you feel bad. However, if you are rude to a friend and yell at them because you are in a bad mood and then feel guilty and that leads you to go and say sorry then your guilt has served a healthy purpose. But again, if something is done and it is in the past now and there is nothing you can physically do it about, then it is best to tell guilt to take a hike”
“What we need to take from this and the saying ‘Don’t cry over Spilt Milk’ is actually very philosophical and also very practical and useful for day to day life. It also means that we need to be very careful about how we interpret things in our lives. Remember how I reacted earlier saying all those things about myself and my life and using the spilt milk as more proof about how terrible my life was and how stupid and clumsy I am and what a failure I am? Well, do you think people really do this?” he asks.
“I think maybe some people do Sir,” says Lily from the front row, one of his star pupils with strawberry blonde hair, “Some people I know seem to blame themselves for every little thing that happens to them when sometimes it is clearly not even their fault.”
“So true Lily and there is actually a name for that in psychology you know,” says the teacher, “It’s called personalisation. It’s actually quite common and very tricky sometimes. I could easily blame myself for dropping that bottle of milk, couldn’t I? After all, I’m the one who dropped it. But, the thing is, it’s not so much what happens to us in life as it is how we react to what happens that makes a huge difference in how people respond to and live their lives, isn’t it? It’s how we choose to interpret the events of our lives and the meaning that we make from them that will determine not only how we respond to them emotionally but how we actually interpret the meaning of that event in our lives. Sometimes things just happen right? You all know that other old saying right? which I won’t say in class because I could get in trouble,” he smiles at the class and a few laugh back with a knowing look.
“Shit happens!” comes a shout from the back row of the class. Everyone bursts out laughing and Brandon, a blondy-brown haired, freckle faced kid who is usually a little unruly in the class smiles with a bit of smug look on his face and taps his pen on the desk looking down.
“Indeed, it does Brandon, indeed it does” says the biology teacher, unfazed by Brandon’s reaction today because Brandon just happens to be spot on and willing to say what he – their teacher – couldn’t say in front of the class.
“There is a fine line between looking for meaning in things that happen in life, which I do believe we can and should do when it is appropriate but there is also a time to try as hard as we can to just let the event happen and move past it as quickly as we can without giving it too much of our energy or attention. We also often find in life that we don’t know the reason behind why some things happen to us until later on. Sometimes we find out soon and sometimes it may be years or even decades before we realise why something which we thought was so bad at the time actually happened. Sometimes it happened because we needed to learn something or we needed to meet someone special or experience something in order to fulfill our mission in life, whatever that may be”.
“I guess some good questions to ask ourselves when something ‘bad’ happens in our lives,” the teacher uses his fingers to show the quotation marks, “is whether it is worth getting upset about in the first place and also whether there is anything that we can do about it right now? Has getting upset about anything ever helped someone move on in life or solve the problem that they are now facing because of the thing that just happened?” Most of the kids seem to agree by shaking their heads that it doesn’t seem to be a very helpful approach to dealing with life’s upsets.
“But Sir, does that mean that we shouldn’t get upset if we fail at something? What if we don’t get our HSC (Higher School Certificate – Australian final high school exams) or fail to achieve the marks we need to get into the University we want to? That would be quite devastating and we couldn’t just say oh well ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’ could we?” Wayne asks.
“Good question Wayne. Not an easy one to answer is it? But I would still point you back to the two questions. Let’s say you did study hard and you failed your HSC or didn’t achieve the marks you needed to get into a University you wanted to get into. What then? Being upset about it would just be human of course. You would likely feel emotions of being sad, upset, demotivated, angry, or even depressed but in the end, how would feeling this way help you achieve what you want in life? And how long do you think is appropriate to be upset and experience all those horrible emotions before you are ‘allowed’ to pick yourself back up and move on with your life?” the teacher asks with a sincere look of questioning and deep emotional understanding of the fears that could well be felt by the majority of the class in this regard.
“I don’t know Sir”, Wayne says “How long do you think?”
“Well, again a very good question and one that is clearly very personal for each human being in terms of their personality and their usual or habitual way of dealing with things in their lives. Some people may never recover from something like that and use it for the rest of their lives as a reason why they are inferior to everyone else and why they cannot succeed and just how stupid they are and unfortunately this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And some people may actually take this as a challenge to think about the direction of their lives and what it is they really want to do and then think about other ways to go about achieving their life goals. Did you know that some of the wealthiest people in the world that many people consider to be geniuses, never finished high school? If you do a little research and study some of the great inventors, business moguls, famous sporting legends, artists, writers and musicians, you will find they didn’t all do well or even finish high school. So again, it’s not so much what happens to us Wayne ‘spilling the milk’, as much as it is how we choose to react to it and how quickly we can recover and get back up and keep pursuing our dreams. Sometimes we just have to pick up the pieces (literally and figuratively), clean up the mess, and do the very next thing that we can see we need to do to keep moving forward in our lives”.
At this point, the biology teacher jumps down off the table, stretches a little and moves to the front of the classroom to his desk to begin the day’s very important curriculum based lesson about the anatomy of a tadpole.
“Sir, I have one more question about all of this”, to which the teacher turns around to see Jake with his hand in the air.
“Are you saying that if someone we love dies we shouldn’t get upset?”
“God no, Jake. I am definitely not saying that. There are things that happen to us in life that are absolutely real and are very much part of being human and being alive on this earth. Experiencing loss or going through any major life event will definitely cause us to go through sorrow and grief. Grieving and being very sad about losing someone in our lives actually requires that we are emotional and upset and that we express these emotions in any way we need to. We may need some help and support during that time too from family, friends and even a good counsellor. In fact, if we ignored it and suppressed our emotions about something like that and just pretended we were okay, we would probably not really get over it and it would have some negative impact on us psychologically and emotionally now and in the future. That kind of stuff needs to be felt, expressed and moved through with help. And all of you please remember you never need to suffer alone. There is always help, you just need to ask for it or look for it. It is always there. It may come from a surprising place sometimes, not from family or close friends. It may come from someone you thought was only an acquaintance, or a teacher or sports coach or someone new you just met. But it will be there if you’re open to it. It will be there. I hope that answers your question Jake?” he says smiling fondly at Jake and then the rest of the class as he picks up his chalk and gets ready to start the lesson.
“Yes Sir, thank you” says Jake and a few other students nod.
“You’re very welcome, you’re all very welcome”.
David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.