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The Quest You Get

I’m still reading the Magician King, the second book in Lev Grossman’s trilogy, and there was a line that gave me pause, especially in regards to our very real, very unmagical world. It, of course, made me think about infertility, but it’s applicable no matter what you’re dealing with in life.

On page 227, Quentin is comparing what he has recently gone through vs. what another character has gone through in terms of their “hardships.”  Both characters have gone through long adventures, encountered obstacles, frustrating moments, loss.  And Quentin wonders if the other character would have fared as well on Quentin’s adventure, and whether Quentin would have fared as well if he had gotten the other character’s lot in life.

The narrator muses, “Maybe he would have failed where Quentin succeeded, and vice versa.  Maybe this was the only way it could have gone.  You didn’t get the quest you wanted, you got the one you could do.”

This is, admittedly, a pet peeve of mine; this idea that the universe or G-d or fill-in-the-blank will not give you more than you can handle.  We all have our trials in life, and if we just have enough faith, trust, energy, we can get through those trials.  That our trials have been carefully curated to fit our capabilities.

It’s true that we can get through things that we never thought we’d get through, and therefore, by definition, we have not been given more than we can “handle” even if we think we cannot get through the situation before we’re in it.

But that’s a pretty weak definition for “handle.”  I mean, there are really only two options: continuing forward or stopping.  Even if you’re not moving forward well, you’re still moving forward.  And if you’re stopping, well, you’re likely dead.  So by that logic, all people who don’t die in the process have technically “handled” whatever the universe has sent their way.

But what is the cost of a quest or a trial or an obstacle?  Just because we can get through it doesn’t mean that we aren’t changed for the worse.  And is that the universe’s goal?  To create broken spirits and distrust and exhaustion?  It brings forth another adage: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  And, I’m sorry, but I don’t think that is always the case.  Sometimes we’re not stronger.  Sometimes we’re actually weaker or just different, depending on the situation.

I don’t know, I’m not always certain I get the quests I can do.

It’s more that I have to do the quests I get.


1 a { 02.10.15 at 8:44 am }

I agree – I pretty much operate by preschool rules. You get what you get and you don’t (or, try not to, most days anyway) throw a fit.

My coworker found a magnet that she thought exemplified my attitude perfectly. It’s a picture of a glaring cat in a bowtie and the caption reads “What doesn’t kill me just ticks me off.”

2 noemi { 02.10.15 at 10:05 am }

I think that whole “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, and “you’re only given what you can handle,” is bullshit. People have a nervous breakdowns. People literally go crazy. People become drug addicts. People killed themselves. Are these people who are given exactly where they can handle? I would argue that they could not handle what they were given. I think people use those adages to make themselves feel better, to restore order to a world of chaos and uncertainty. But that doesn’t make either of those sentiments true.

3 Sharon { 02.10.15 at 11:26 am }

I disagree that “the Universe (or G-d, if you’d rather) doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Because, as noemi points out, many people are driven over the edge in some way by what the Universe gives them.

I do think that many of us are capable of getting through, or “handling,” far more than we initially think we are. . . but perhaps not all of us, not all the time.

4 nicoleandmaggie { 02.10.15 at 11:59 am }

Sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you end up broken with a chronic disease.

5 Courtney { 02.10.15 at 12:01 pm }

yeah, the whole idea that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle is totally f’ed. I know this woman, work with her, who has stage 4tbreast cancer. Prior to this she lost one full-term baby at birth, had premature twins, and then had a son born early and so traumatically they both almost died. He has learning disabilities and just had to have substantial jaw surgery. Her husband then had to go on disability. Nobody should have to handle what she has been asked to. I’ll never understand how some people have to struggle so mightily in this world.

6 nicoleandmaggie { 02.10.15 at 1:01 pm }

From a theological perspective…I always thought the whole point of Adam and Eve was that we were on our own with hardships from being kicked out of the Garden of Eden and the things we got from everyone having free-will. God, instead, I thought, was supposed to provide strength to withstand hardships… not the hardships themselves. (Not that I don’t occasionally pray for miracles and other forms of direct intervention other than just strength…)

7 Ana { 02.10.15 at 1:04 pm }

I agree with you. As Courtney’s example above, some people are just dealt a shit hand. And they don’t always make it through unscathed. If they do make it through they may well come out weaker and worn out. On the other hand, we have to tell ourselves these little stories sometimes to make it through the day.

8 Catwoman73 { 02.10.15 at 1:22 pm }

I agree- logically, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is pure bullshit. But interestingly, during my lowest times, I have taken great comfort in saying that very phrase over and over to myself. Sometimes, I think we cling to these old adages as a matter of survival. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, if it helps you get through tough times.

9 Junebug { 02.10.15 at 1:22 pm }

I agree. We get good hands and shit hands. We deal with them (or not). We move on or we stay focused on what we thought we would have. Maybe there is karma. Maybe we chose this journey. Sometimes what we want doesn’t happen (and we don’t want what we get). Sometimes we do get what we wanted, and it knocks us over anyway, because we had no idea what we were asking for.

I am usually present for the journey, but steering the outcome doesn’t usually work. It’s another day in paradise.

10 Journeywoman { 02.10.15 at 1:48 pm }

I agree, sometimes the hand you’re dealt is just plain old shit. I often think of Col. Blake’s line from M*A*S*H

“If I had all the answers I’d be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this look like the Mayo Clinic?”

11 SuzannaCatherine { 02.10.15 at 3:27 pm }

I’m just as conflicted as everyone else about not getting a bigger load than we can carry, but I love the reference to M*A*S*H and Col. Blake! That made my day and made me smile.

12 Rebecca { 02.10.15 at 4:49 pm }

OK, I saw the title of this post and yelled (well, to myself) “Magician King!” because I just read that part a day or two ago and I’ve been thinking about that line since I read it, too. I truly don’t believe in the “you only get what you can do” thing. The line made me think about the differences in how we all approach similar situations but not that we only get the quest (or life) destined for us. More that the quest that we get develops the way it does because of who we are and how we approach it. And, I agree that we simply have to do the quest we get.

(Also, thank you for the recommendation for the Magicians! I loved the first half of the first book and had mixed feelings about the second half of the first book. But I’m really loving the second book. 🙂 )

13 Mali { 02.10.15 at 9:55 pm }

I join the chorus! I agree that “you only get what you can handle.” Well, a young man very close to a member of my family committed suicide. So did the sister of a friend, and others I knew. They clearly got more than they could handle. A friend of mine said, “they say G– only gives you what you can handle. Well, G– is clearly over-estimating my abilities.”

I think that statement is meant both as a platitude (“you’ll get through it, now feel better and stop making me feel bad”) and a compliment (“you’re so strong”). But really, the universe is random, and some people strike the jackpot, and others get the wooden spoon. Or worse. Fairness or any idea that this was planned doesn’t come into it.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is different though. You’re right, this doesn’t always apply. Often situations can leave us sad and broken. But long-term, I do think there is a ring of truth in this. My ectopics didn’t kill me (though they could have) or my childlessness, and initially, and for a year or two (or three) I was definitely changed, weaker. Now though, I do think I’m stronger.

14 Em { 02.10.15 at 10:18 pm }

Oh my goodness. This keeps coming up over and over in my life. I was writing a post about this very idea, but then a friend wrote a post about it, and now you! The thing that bothers me the most about people saying that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle is that it’s totally a mis-quote of the Bible. That verse is saying that God doesn’t allow us to face temptations that would be totally impossible for us to stand strong in the midst of. It says nothing about the trials of life. Not trying to be Little Miss Well Actually here, but I couldn’t resist putting my SEVENTEEN YEARS of Bible education to use. Boom. I did it.

15 torthuil { 02.11.15 at 12:16 am }

All I can say is that if “G-d doesn’t give you more than you can handle” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is helpful to someone, then there is nothing wrong with he / she using those mantras. (Though, as Em pointed out, there’s nothing in the Bible that says any such thing about God). But as is the case with most cliches, bite your lip before offering them as “comfort” to anyone else.

16 deathstar { 02.11.15 at 11:26 am }

At a certain point in my youth, I kept trying to make sense of the world and all the things that happen in it. I think everyone in the world feels the need to be protected and safe. Having faith in something gives them that. But I never could figure out how some people always flourished and others had shitty things happen to them over and over and over. Now Buddhism says that bad karma is responsible for those nasty things, but since if you created bad karma in the distant past (before you came into this world) there wasn’t much you could do about it anyway so you should just create good karma in the present and in the future. I’ve interpreted this into life is unfair so at the crucial moment, you have a choice to make. To transform your suffering or be defined by it. I’ve been on both sides of it and that’s what makes us human.

17 deathstar { 02.11.15 at 11:28 am }

I’ve explained that horribly, but I gotta get the kid to school. Maybe one day I’ll write a post about it.

18 Rachel { 02.11.15 at 12:09 pm }

Ugh this is one of those double edged swords.

Essentially, I think every path in life is a test of varying degrees…some are tougher than others, and I have no idea why some people get the tougher ones and some get the seemingly easier ones. You draw on your village supports – finances, family, friends, religion, God…etc…to give you strength and help you through it. You can’t control what happens, but if you address it the right way maybe you’ll come out ok. That’s all I got.

19 Queenie { 02.11.15 at 9:16 pm }

Interesting. I am the biggest cynic on the planet, but I do believe in the idea that you never get more than you can handle. But I also believe humans can handle just about anything. Some don’t want to, but that is another story. But if you take it one day at a time, I’ve found most people really can survive and thrive again, eventually. And I mean truly the worst situations.

20 Queenie { 02.11.15 at 9:22 pm }

PS. You DO have to do the quests you get, but once you are on the other side, it’s up to you how long you let them have a hold over you. It’s hard, but you CAN choose to let the bad stuff go.

21 JoAnne Applebaugh { 02.11.15 at 10:44 pm }

I’ve been thinking about this more and more often lately. I do tend to take comfort in the idea that I won’t get more than I can handle and that things have a way of working out. Is this G_d? The Universe? An elaborate time shift where a different version of me is somewhat guiding my reality? I don’t know. What I do know is that, no matter what you think of these sayings, if you put your head down and keep walking into the wind you’ll make more progress than if you just sit down on the ground and stop. Or, more accurately to me, if I get up and do something then I will have made more progress then if I just stayed sad and anxiety paralyzed on my floor (which has happened… more than once). Eventually I always have to pick myself up and go forward because, ultimately, that is the only direction I have to go.

It’s not fair, it’s probably not divine, but it gets me off the floor (eventually).

We don’t always get the quest we choose, but we can choose to quest… if we get up off the floor.

22 Mali { 02.11.15 at 10:47 pm }

Eeek – I came back to read other responses, and realise I made a terrible typo in my first sentence. “I agree that “you only get what you can handle.” ” should have been “I DISagree that “you only get what you can handle.”” Sigh. I think the rest of my comment made that obvious. I hope.

23 Valery Valentina { 02.12.15 at 5:21 am }

Dear Mel, dear commenting ladies, I couldn’t agree more.

24 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.12.15 at 11:39 am }

You have articulated what I’ve often thought about both aphorisms.

Sometimes crummy things happen. We either step up or we don’t.

Also, I think that g*d/Universe/the Divine is much less personal than we think it is. The component in the equation that makes it personal is….us.

25 Tiara { 02.14.15 at 9:14 am }

So well said. I think we get what we get & we have to get thru because what is the alternative? But we don’t always get thru “well”. I know times when things were hard & I was “getting thru” I wasn’t doing so very graciously but once thru, I was able to grow & became a better person in the end because of the experience but I still had to make amends for being shitty during the getting thru part.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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