This post is from GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Frugal Cool blog for MSN Money, and writes about frugality and intentional living at Surviving And Thriving.

The delightful Rita Rudner once said that she never gets lost — she just changes where it is she wants to go. I’d like to stand that joke on its head: If life takes a sudden, unpleasant turn, you might have to turn along with it — at least for a while.

So you’d planned to go straight to the top. Who doesn’t? Sometimes you have to accept plateaus, lateral moves, or even downward spirals:

  • High student loans, low-paying job (or no job at all)
  • Sudden illness or injury
  • Layoff
  • Divorce and its attendant emotional and financial dramas

If you think that any one of these things could ruin your life, you’re right. You’re also wrong. Such things don’t happen to your life. They are your life, or, rather, just one part of your life. Never mind that it’s a part you wish you could skip over. It’s yours, at least for a time. That’s not to say you’ll stay in one place forever. You’re not accepting defeat. You’re temporarily changing direction.

Many of us hope for smooth sailing on life’s tranquil stream, but suddenly we’re drowning in debt or underwater on our mortgages. Aqueous metaphors aside, the fact is that none of us is guaranteed an easy ride. Bad stuff happens, often to good people.

Live and learn
What did we do to deserve it? Sometimes the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves: risky behaviors, bad money habits, an inability to think beyond the next pleasurable moment.

At other times, shit just happens. Nobody asks to be hit by a drunk driver, or to be swept up in a surprise layoff. Here’s the thing: You don’t get to wish it all away.

Wish you hadn’t taken out all those student loans? Maybe you were misled or misinformed, but that’s your signature on the paperwork. What are you doing about it now? Looking at scary medical debt after an illness came out of the blue? Believe me, I hear you on this one — but have you researched your options?

Wondering if you’ll ever get another job in your field after 15 years at your old one? Good question. In the meantime, obligations must be met. How will you make that happen?

Kicking yourself for not listening when your dad said, “A fancy sports car is a bad idea at this stage of your life?” Welcome to the shoulda-woulda-coulda club. What’s your plan?

Don’t devote any more energy to sighing about what you wish you’d done instead of what you did do. Don’t waste time moaning about how unfair it is that you bought at the height of the housing bubble or graduated into a lousy economy. Instead, keep looking for solutions, even partial ones: get a roommate, sell the car, pare down basic expenses, investigate a short sale, ask if you can move back in with the folks.

Bring your own ladder
None of these sound like much fun — and just about any solution is a partial one in that it doesn’t work right away. For example, suppose paying off the credit cards will take two years of careful budgeting. You’ll be out of debt, but those two years could seem endless. A decade down the road, though, you’ll realize how much you learned during that time period — and how it positioned you for what came next.

Pay attention to these lessons because there’s no guarantee that hard luck will stay gone. My daughter nearly died at age 19 from a rare neurological disease. Left with some permanent health issues and on disability for a time, she was lucky to find a job she can do at home. Yet she keeps getting hammered by personal and financial crises:

  • Her husband is disabled.
  • Her unemployed in-laws, one of whom has a serious heart ailment, had to move in.
  • In the last year: Two miscarriages, root canal for her, a cracked denture for her husband, a handful of ER visits for both of them.
  • A careless driver hit them and totaled their car; the insurance payoff wasn’t nearly enough to pay for a replacement vehicle.
  • The used car they got (and partially financed) has had several repair issues.
  • The house they bought with less of a down payment than they’d hoped for (so the in-laws could move in sooner) has had repair issues, too.

Those are just the things I can remember off the top of my head. It would be so easy to stop trying. But no matter how many times they get slapped down, they keep coming back — and slapping back. They are determined to seek meaningful lives.

To those who say, “When God closes a door, He opens a window,” I say this: Bring your own ladder. Better yet, kick that sumbitchen door down and demand, demand a shot at self-determination. Don’t sit around waiting for some celestial locksmith to open it for you.

However, be prepared to wait for both the opportunity and the strength to do the kicking. Immediately after the layoff or the major surgery is not the time. You may have to hit “pause” for a bit.

This is neither punishment nor penance. It’s just life. Don’t take it too personally. Sometimes you have no other option except to play the hand you’re dealt — but always with an eye toward improving your eventual odds.

No more ‘what-ifs’
It isn’t easy to keep going when life turns on you. But just as silence equals consent, inaction equals surrender.

In a marvelous novel called “Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth,” the protagonist is devastated when her husband asks for a divorce. Too depressed to move, Magdalena lies in bed and wonders what she could have done differently. What if she’d tried harder? What if she’d been the wife her husband wanted?

Her aunt’s reply: “There is no ‘what if.’ There is only what is.

Eventually Magdalena gets out of bed and rebuilds her life. It isn’t the life she thought she wanted. It isn’t a life she could ever have imagined. But it is a life, and a good one.

Do not let bad luck or hard times keep you down for long. Focus on what you might do next to change things. Celebrate every victory, no matter how small. (“Put an extra $40 into this month’s debt snowball! Woo hoo!”) Every so often allow yourself to spend a little money even if you think you shouldn’t. That happy-hour special will feel like a night at the Ritz.

And yes, every now and then allow yourself a limited number of why-me moments. (I call them “rollover mopes.”) Just don’t get stuck in the glumness. To paraphrase a cliché: Tough times don’t last. Tough lessons do, if you’re motivated enough to learn from them.