“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
– Robert Frost
It’s normal to dwell on things that have gone wrong in the past: how somebody hurt us, how we humiliated ourselves, all our regrets at the choices we made and didn’t make.
It’s also normal to worry about the things that could go wrong in the future: the different ways we could experience social ridicule, getting physically hurt if we aren’t careful enough, the people that we love leaving us or dying on us.
In short, we spend a lot of time suffering: depressed about the past, anxious about the future.
Expectations vs. Reality
We can attribute much of this suffering to a belief that we must unknow: that suffering is a sign that life has gone wrong for us. We are very attached to the idea that if life unravels as it should, it will be wonderful.
And no wonder we’ve developed this belief. We’re constantly fed with images and media stories of people seeming to have it all. We’re promised that if we try hard, we can have this too.
So when we do everything right and things still go wrong, we feel cheated. Yeah, we know that shit happens, but it’s supposed to happen to other people, not to us or the ones we love. It’s undeserved and unfair. Or worse, and this is when things start getting really dark – maybe it actually iswhat we deserve. Maybe there is something profoundly lacking in us that made this happen. Maybe we’re just not supposed to be happy.
The Way Out
1. Acceptance that everyone suffers
Fear and adversity have a way of making us feel so alienated that we forget a basic truth: Suffering is a part of life. Everybody’s life.
When things don’t work out the way we want them to, it’s not because life has taken the wrong track. It’s not because life or god or the universe has singled us out for punishment, or because we are uniquely flawed or unworthy of happiness. We suffer because that’s just what happens to everyone. Some people are just a lot better at hiding it than others.
It’s this realization of the shared human experience of suffering that releases us from its grip. I don’t mean that we should sink into pessimism or depression about the cruelty of the world. I just mean that we must stop expecting or hoping for things to always be pleasant for us. We must accept that life is by its very nature, a mix of ups and downs. Over time, our happiness fades and pain loses its sting. No matter what happens, life goes on.
What we need, then, is a certain level of detachment: the ability to take neither happiness nor pain too seriously. This is an important step to building resilience- to know that no matter what happens to us, we will be ok.
3. Choosing Compassion and Growth
Once we’ve detached ourselves from the need to not suffer, we start developing compassion, both for ourselves and others. This opens us up to the most important mindset of all – to do the best we can with whatever we’ve been given, because that is all that is within our control.
When that happens, we start seeing challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow. Indeed, there is a mounting body of research on post-traumatic growth that confirms that what doesn’t kill us really can make us stronger. After the initial pain and trauma of a tragic event has passed, many people report a renewed appreciation for life, much more empathy and compassion for others leading to warmer relationships, a greater sense of personal strength, and increased spiritual development.
Life amidst death
Perhaps my favourite example of resilience and growth is Viktor Frankl. He was a survivor of four Holocaust camps that took the lives of his parents, brother and wife. He had to watch people die horrible deaths daily. He himself had to endure such horrible abuse that death looked tempting. And many did make that choice: they would simply sit in a corner refusing all food and wait for their body to give up.
And yet, he didn’t choose to die. He was a part of a select few that took a different approach:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Pain is inevitable in life. What matters is what we choose to do with it: choose to see it as the end of our world, or to see it as a way to grow and make something productive out of it.
Either way, life goes on.