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Thirteen years ago, a total stranger taught the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno—whose new film, Young Adult, is in theaters—a lesson in resilience.
When I was 20, I had a job at an academic summer camp for gifted high school students, sorting their mail and care packages. I was at a point in my life when I was depressed and friendless and lonely—I had no direction. Being surrounded by these bright young kids made me feel even lower, because it reminded me of my squandered potential. I sat at my desk all day, avoiding interaction with people.
But two weeks into camp, one of the teachers, who was a very charming Southern gentleman, stopped to talk to me. During our conversation, he told me he had cancer. He was such a strong, cheerful man, even in the face of illness. I didn't understand how someone in his position could be so positive. So I asked him, "How are you so happy?" He said, "Well, I never waste time asking myself, 'Why me?' Instead I ask, 'Well, why not me?'"
I had spent so much time asking myself questions like "Why don't I have a boyfriend?" or "Why am I so lonely?" But after we spoke, I realized that no one's entitled to anything in life. Bad things happen; good things happen. That could sound depressing to some, but rather than being a statement of resignation, I think of it more as a battle cry: "I am not my circumstances." How we deal with loss and pain is what really makes a difference in our lives. Ever since that conversation, whenever something happens to me and my knee-jerk response is to ask, "Why me?" I immediately hear that man's Southern drawl saying, "Why not me?"
Of course, I have to work at avoiding the navel-gazing trap, because like anyone else, I'm tempted to feel put-upon sometimes. I'm in a really competitive industry—in show business, you take a lot of flack. Plus, as a working mom, I feel pressure from all sides to be the perfect provider. I could choose to feel like a martyr, but instead I think, "You are not the first and only person in the world who has had to do this." That strategy works for me. When I acknowledge I'm not the center of the universe, life seems a whole lot easier.
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From the January 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!