You have probably had to deal with quite a few challenges over the years. Most of us have. Sure, some people seem to have been dealt a better hand than others. But if you ever get to take a look under the bonnet of even the most ebullient & outwardly ‘successful’ & happy person, I suspect you will find that they too have experienced a fair amount of distress & pain. Most of us have learnt to deny or hide our vulnerabilities & either aren’t aware of, or are aware of but are ashamed of our ‘shadow side’ (a key tenant of Carl Jung). In Hamlet, Shakespeare reminds us that we all have to face:
‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.
The Buddhists chip in with:
‘Life is suffering’.
Paradoxically, if you accept these simple but rather ominous & down-beat sounding truths, chances are you’ll be a lot more content. Go figure. Pain is inevitable, misery is optional.
A poem my Mum & Dad were fond of quoting to me, when as an adolescent I argued vociferously that all my woes were a direct result of their inadequacies as parents:
“They f*%k you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you.
But they were f*%ked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don’t have any kids yourself.”
― This Be The Verse, Philip Larkin
So where am I going with this?
For many years I lamented & resented the challenges I have had to face.
Why do I have to have a mood disorder — often labelled Bipolar Affective Disorder? Why do I have to suffer from intense & destructive addiction issues that threaten my very survival? I have felt truly sorry for myself at points in my life. Jealous too, of those I felt, had a better run of things.
While sharing my woes with a friend (who happened to be a retired psychotherapist), she kindly interrupted me & suggested the antidote to my complaint was:
‘To turn adversity into inspiration’.
I was a bit confused at first & so at my request, she expanded her theory.
Yes, I had had a lot of difficult stuff to deal with, maybe more than most. But, if I could learn to turn this adversity into inspiration, then over time, I may just be able to use these experiences to create something beautiful.
The very act of me writing this prose, for example, which I hope is helpful to you (it’s certainly cathartic & satisfying for me), is in part a result of the years of distress I’ve experienced. I’m compassionate, reflective & wise not despite my suffering but because of it.
In many ways, this ‘lemons-to-lemonade’ idea explains why most types of talking therapies work. Just like physical pain, psychological pain helps raise awareness that an emotional issue requires attention. Of course, there are a multitude of different types of therapy but at a basic level, they all pretty much encourage us to turn adversity into inspiration. To plant & grow flowers in the ‘manure’ of our psychic distress.
We try to make peace with our pain or at least learn ways to deal constructively with it. As a result of the very experiences we have resented or lamented or tried to avoid or deny most of our lives — we eventually use this material, to shine like the stars we are. Friedrich Nietzsche points out: ‘One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.’
Ready for another metaphor!? Good.
How we drive a car is a useful analogy for how we might approach life. We need to observe what is directly in front of us or we may crash. Sometimes we need to look further ahead to make sure there are no obstacles coming our way. And sometimes we need to look in the rear-view mirror to ensure we are aware of hazards that are behind us. And it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we all have blind spots that our wing mirrors fail to show us.
The key concept is that if we spend all our time looking in the rear-view mirror (ruminating on past pain & grievances) or all our attention too far in front of us (worrying excessively about the future) or fixating on all the horrors that could be lurking beyond the scope of our wing mirrors (staying too long in therapy?) we are likely to crash. Balance of focus is key to us enjoying the journey as well as safely reaching our destination.
Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, reminds us:
‘Life is something that can only be understood looking backwards but must be lived looking forwards’.
Do you doubt this pain-to-potential thesis? Do you dismiss my logic as a way of avoiding or minimising the distress that can be caused by mental health issues, including addiction? Then I shall be forced to remind you of the following insight:
‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in to trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’ Mark Twain.
I’ll end on this final thought. I’m not sure if a philosopher said the following or it is an idea I’ve created — but why don’t we give me the credit huh?’
‘Go to your wound, therein lies your genius.’