The Overcoming (part 2)

In an earlier post I quoted Helen Keller who wisely stated:

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it”

The significance of this statement can be easily overlooked. And yet, this quote gets to the very heart of personal resiliency, particularly within the context of deep suffering such as an illness, serious injury or loss of a loved one.

I think most of us have at one time or another been moved by a story of great tragedy overcome. We are always sad for those who suffer, but for those who suffer and find a way to emerge happy and strong we have different emotions. We feel for their suffering, but we admire their courage. What’s more, sometimes we feel uplifted and inspired by their story. Hey, if they can deal with what they went through and live a full life, so can I! This is one of the great dichotomy’s of life: without evil and hardship, how would we know kindness and courage? Isn’t one partially defined and made possible by the other? In some ways, these stories of great courage help define the human experience.

A common reference point in this regard are veterans of WWI and WWII who knew suffering and loss in a way we (who did not live it) can never hope to understand. And yet, these wars defined their lives in a very real way. It is well documented* how some veterans expressed a sense of loss when the war was over. They did not want to return to the battlefield necessarily, but they missed the sense of ultimate purpose and comradery that they experienced in the trenches. Again, their courage and bonds of friendship were in some ways made possible by the horror of their experience.

Please let me be clear: I am not in favour of war and suffering! LOL Nor do I intend to in anyway diminish the suffering and repercussions of the lives they led after such terrible physical and emotional trauma. I ask your forgiveness as I try to bring life to an extremely elusive and difficult concept.  I am merely trying to illustrate that even within the greatest of tragedies (and sometimes because of them) we have an opportunity to redefine our relationship with the world; to find courage; to help and inspire others. I ask you, is this not beautiful?

When you are facing great hardships in your life, it is essential (let me stress this: essential), that you approach it as an opportunity to shine, to grow, to be proud of who you are and who you will become. Fortunately, we have countless examples of brave souls from every place and culture who have faced great hardship and chose courage and strength over despair. Use these as inspiration; use these as proof that as human beings we can overcome almost anything.

The challenge most of us have is consistency, and determination. We are inspired to overcome, but after a while we fall back into old habits, old ways of thinking. Why? Because it’s hard!!! It is much like the New Year’s resolution we make in good faith, but give up on a few months (or weeks!) later. As always, the key is to change our way of thinking. I know from my own experience over the last few years, that this can be a daily struggle, or even one we face moment to moment.

I recently learned that I have two permanent conditions that will be with me for the rest of my life. One is very physically painful and makes it difficult to do even the most basic daily activities. As of this moment, I have no ability to play any of the sports or exercises that I love so much, or even play with my daughters in the backyard. This is hard, and it makes me incredibly sad, frustrated and angry all at the same time. What is more, the pain is sharp, intense and constant. This is very tiring and wears on me. The other is a constant sensation of falling, and a dizziness when I try to read, write or type. The feelings of frustration and loss can be intense, and believe me when I tell you I feel them often.

For me, mental agility is vital to my survival and happiness. I must continuously fight the urge to feel sorry for myself, and constantly reset my perspective. In other words, I remind myself that this is an opportunity to build my courage, my will, my mental agility, my resilience. There are times I feel like less of a ‘man’ because I face muscle loss, I am in many ways unable to protect my family, and these conditions have the potential to threaten my livelihood. So I reset. I commit myself to continually trying to grow as a person, father and husband. I spend time envisioning how I want to be perceived and what it looks like for me to overcome. I fail sometimes, but I never give up.

I am thankful that I have the opportunity to challenge myself, face hardship, and overcome in a positive and hopefully inspiring way. I can almost hear you saying: ‘Are you kidding me? You’re trying to tell me you are happy about this? Come on!” The honest answer is yes and no.  Sometimes I am frustrated, feel sorry for myself, and feel sad at what I have lost. However, I truly am thankful for the opportunity it presents me to grow and succeed. There are many varied ways to measure success. For me success means that I am happy, productive and full of laughter.

Please indulge me if I have spent too much time talking about my own struggles. I want to make it clear that I am not comparing my personal challenges with the terrible horrors suffered by so many others now and throughout history. I am simply sharing a part of my own story.  I debated for a long time whether to share this information for fear that it may seem preachy and self-aggrandizing. In the end I decided to go for it because I think it is helpful to know that there is real-life experience behind the words – hopefully you agree.  Life is wonderful. Try to live every moment with grace, love and laughter. You won’t always succeed, but even to strive in this endeavour is an immeasurable reward.

* Look no further than comments of the indomitable Louis Zamperini

Fake it till you Make it

Many of you have heard of the adage: ‘fake it till you make it’. For my late and very great grandmother this meant that you put on a smile and think happy thoughts even when you are down. She was convinced this worked, and as with so many things in life it turns out my grandmother – a woman who personified personal resiliency – was right!

In the book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell references several clinical studies that were conducted to map the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. The researchers knew that certain emotions such as anger or sadness generate common facial expressions such as thin lips or frowns. But what they discovered was that the reverse was also true. In other words, our facial expressions have a profound impact on our emotional state. So, for instance, if we were an actor who spent the day frowning or miming sadness, it would produce profoundly negative feelings or what the researchers described as “marked changes in the autonomic nervous system” (Gladwell, Blink, 2005, p. 206).

By contrast, the physical reproduction of a smile generates positive emotions in test subjects. We all know that physical exercise generates endorphins which elevate our emotional state. Though the science behind it is not as well understood, a smile has a similar effect in the human nervous system. Once again, science has managed to catch up to folk wisdom many years after the fact.. :)

Many of us have experienced a related truism: when we smile and approach the world with positive emotions, we tend to attract positive people and events. Which leads us to another common saying first penned by Stanley West: “smile and the world smiles with you…”.

So what do we take from all this? In practical terms my advice is simple: take advantage of every happy moment, especially when you are in the midst of despair. Sometimes when we are struggling our mind becomes our own worst enemy. Let me illustrate with a simple example. Melissa is facing depression and spends most of her time feeling downright horrible. She is watching a movie and before she realizes it she is lost in the moment. One of her favourite comedic actors does something funny and she starts to laugh. But before she can truly enjoy the moment a little voice inside her reminds her: ‘Hey wait! You’re supposed to be upset!’ The happy moment is squashed before it begins and Melissa’s cycle of depression deepens. This might seem simplistic but this is how it works for many people.

Once again, it is essential for those who wish to develop personal resiliency to be aware of this pattern and make a mental decision to break it. If we take the example of Melissa watching the movie, I would have advised her to pause, question that little voice inside her, reject it, and allow herself to laugh and enjoy the moment. Picture that little voice as the tiny devil on your shoulder as in the old Flintstone’s cartoons (oh my have I ever dated myself!). Don’t trust that guy! Instead, think of life as made up of millions of little moments for happiness. You can choose to embrace them, as my wonderful grandmother did, or not. One path leads to fulfillment and happiness; the other does not. For those individuals seeking personal resiliency and fulfillment, there is only one choice to make. Smile, my friends, whenever you can. :)

Lessons from the Storm

I’m in the storm; I seek shelter.

When I have the courage to turn and look back

I feel wind that brings change,

And rain that cleans.

Thunder bursting with might

Reminds me I sometimes hear, not listen,

And of the dark, also is light.


Hardiness and Personal Power

The concept of ‘hardiness’ has become closely associated with personal resiliency training. Hardiness is best understood as a series of behaviours that individuals demonstrate during incidents of crisis or extreme stress. For the most part, the hardiness concept revolves around issues of self-efficacy, or an individual’s perception that he/she has control over his/her life and environment. Those with high levels of self-efficacy tend to approach and perceive difficult situations as realistic challenges, and they bend their energy towards finding creative solutions to these problems. Those with lower levels of self-efficacy tend to perceive a crisis as something that happens to them and something over which they have little control.

To illustrate the difference between the two approaches, I will share with you the stories of two individuals who experienced breakups (I have changed the names to protect their privacy) and confided in me during their grieving periods. In the first case, Jennifer and her partner broke up due to ongoing disagreements about personal finances and career decisions. Although heartbroken, Jennifer remained positive and was unwilling to drown in the sorrow she most certainly felt. I remember watching her one day playing with her dog, laughing and enjoying the moment. Jennifer grieved at times, but refused to allow that grief to invade the rest of her life. She remained open to the possibility of reconciliation with her boyfriend, and yet was willing to accept whatever happened. She focused on her career, exercised daily, and continued to pursue those activities which gave meaning to her life.

The second case involves a woman (Elaine) who woke up one morning to the news that her husband was leaving her after two years of marriage. Elaine was understandably shocked and overwhelmed by this news. Over the following months Elaine fell into a deep depression and although she eventually overcame the worst of it she admitted to me over two years later that she was still not “over the breakup”. There are no standard timelines for grieving; everyone has their own way of healing and no one should be pushed to heal faster than they are capable. However, Elaine’s perceptions about her situation did not help to ease her burden. In fact, they made things considerably worse.

Let me explain what I mean. In talking to Elaine over the course of many months, I made several observations that I believe contributed to her emotional distress. First, she perceived the breakup as something that happened to her. She had previously acknowledged that there were ongoing problems and conflict in her marriage. In fact, on several occasions over the previous year she had considered ending the relationship herself. And yet, when her husband left her she took no responsibility for the deteriorating condition of her marriage.  On several occasions she referred to ‘never catching a break in life’ or a feeling that ‘the world was against her’.

Second, she consistently demonstrated what we refer to as ‘castastrophe thinking’. Elaine believed that her situation would never improve, and rather than thinking about what good things she had in her life she perceived only trauma and failure.

Third, when I questioned her about the possibility of reconciliation with her ex-husband or the potential for a better relationship in the future she consistently expressed the belief that the outcome of any relationship would be the same. In Elaine’s mind, that outcome was failure.

The primary difference between the way that Jennifer and Elaine dealt with their grief was in their perceptions of control or self-efficacy. Elaine took no responsibility for the dissolution of her marriage and perceived the relationship failure as both beyond her control and unchangeable in the future. By contrast, Jennifer remained open to reconciliation, was willing to accept what she could not change, and engaged in activities that made her feel productive and happy.

This ability to accept what can’t be changed is an important (and often misunderstood) concept in discussions of hardiness and resiliency. Often those who learn about personal resiliency come to believe that they have to accept ‘their fate’ and move on. This is a dangerous interpretation because it can lead someone to abrogate responsibility for their situation, and underestimate their capacity to shape their life.  There is a better way to approach these kinds of situations.  First, recognize that you have some level of control of your life, and apply all of your creative problem-solving skills to affect change in a positive way; and second, be willing to accept what you cannot change only after other avenues have been explored.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate the point. Roger loses his job as a manager for a clothing store. He and his wife are obviously concerned about finances and worry about losing their home. Should Roger accept this outcome as inevitable and put their house up for sale? No he should not; at least not immediately.

Instead, Roger and his wife change their spending habits and create a manageable budget that will carry them through the next six months. They lay out the steps involved to sell their house so they are prepared to do so if it becomes necessary. Roger identifies job goals and dedicates himself to job searching with support from a community employment agency and a recruiter who helped him find his previous position.  Roger is realistic about his marketability, acknowledging that he found his last job through a friend and had no previous experience or education in the retail sector. In order to address this issue, Roger finds a one year community college course that he believes will make him more marketable in the field as well as open the door to other related opportunities. He also explores self-employment options and although he concludes it is not financially viable at this time, he resolves to pursue this option in the future. Throughout this process Roger is realistic about tough decisions he may be forced to make – and he is prepared to make them. However, he pursues as many avenues of possibility available to him to ensure the best result for his family.

In other words, accept what you cannot change, but make darn sure you have explored other possibilities before reaching that conclusion.

Until my next post, remember to stay positive, stay creative, and trust that good things can (and usually do) happen as a result.

The Dream of a Traffic Jam

Major components of this blog will be posted on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. However, in the meantime I will offer quotes, insight, and other information to help support and enrich the overall theme.  Tonight I want to share with you a brief story that I have used in the past to put my own suffering into perspective. It is a story I have shared with many others who have at one time or another spoken to me about challenges in their lives. The story comes from a prominent leader in positive psychology by the name of Paul Pearsall. Paul was a survivor of Stage IV cancer at the time he recounted this story in his book ‘The Beethoven Factor’. He remembers sitting in a hospital room very sick and very scared. From the window he heard the familiar sounds of the evening traffic jam. In that moment, there was nothing he wanted more than to be a normal person coming home from work stuck in traffic. How many times had he cursed that same traffic in the past; now it was like a an oasis in the desert for him. He never forgot that moment and used it after his recovery to handle more calmly the smaller frustrations and obstacles in his life.

I have often replayed this story in my mind to help put things in perspective; and yes, even to deal with traffic jams!

I hope you find it useful as well.