“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
“Poetry, philosophy, and physics all teach us that we don’t experience time in equal increments. wrote Sheryl Sandberg. Her husband suddenly died, and it was as though the world had turned over. For her, time “slowed way, way down”. “I was in ‘the void’,” she said. “A vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe.”
I’m sure we’ve all been there. Some forms of hardship we can just brush off and tell ourselves that everything happens for a reason. And there are forms of hardship that just seem to immobilize us. Perhaps it’s a tragedy or an unfortunate event that completely tears down the visions that we had dreamed up for our life. As we struggle to make sense of it, as we painfully ponder on the mere thought of building a new vision for ourselves, our brain stays in a fog — We’re stricken by anxiety, we can’t think straight, we wake up in cold sweats, we lose our appetites.
We wish there was something we could do to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we can’t. At least in that moment. Until then, it feels like it could last forever. “Part of every misery is misery’s shadow,” C.S. Lewis wrote. “..The fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer.”
And it’s totally okay to feel all of those things. Not everything has to be figured out immediately. Grief, especially, is a process, and you need to just let it run its course on its own time. However, there are a few important things you need to be aware of that could impede that healing process.
As psychologist Martin Seligman observed, these 3 P’s can stunt your recovery :
- Personalization : Believing that you are at fault
- Pervasiveness : Believing that that particular event will affect all areas of your life
- Permanence : Believing that the aftershocks of the event will last forever
In this article, we will explore a few lessons on not just enduring very tough times, but as Ernest Hemingway put it, to be “strong at the broken places” after the world breaks you. And of course, these lessons can help you transcend the 3 P’s mentioned above.
Have Lots of Self-Compassion
“Self-compassion comes from recognizing that our imperfections are part of being human. Those who can tap into it recover from hardship faster.”
Another psychologist, Mark Leary said that self-compassion “can be an antidote to the cruelty we sometimes inflict on ourselves.”
In a nutshell, self-compassion boils down to treating yourself as how you would treat a friend. During hard times especially, would you keep beating a friend up over her mistakes? Of course not. You’d do all you can to comfort her, to help her see the silver lining. But it’s amazing how we often treat ourselves harshly. We truly act as our own worst critic.
One thing you can learn to nurture is blaming your actions instead of your character. There’s a difference between telling yourself that you did something wrong, and telling yourself that there’s something wrong with you. The former leads to guilt, and the latter leads to shame.
The humorist Erma Bombeck once joked that “Guilt is the gift that keeps giving.” — While guilt can be tough to contain, it motivates us to step up our game, to become a better version of ourselves. Shame, on the other hand, just makes us feel worthless and small. And as a result, we only wallow in self-pity, which could make us want to keep doing the bad habits even more.
Another vital lesson in self-compassion is teaching yourself to actually have fun in your life. Just as you need to be kind to yourself when you make mistakes, you need to be kind to yourself by enjoying life as much as you can, whenever you can.
Viktor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp and famously wrote the book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, often talked about humor being a key aspect in the prisoners’ survival. Humor, he said, “was a another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.” With humor, one “can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation.”
In the camp, Frankl had a friend with whom they would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story every day, about an incident that could happen some day after their liberation. Laughter never failed to reduce their fears in size and keep the beacon of hope alive in their hearts.
He said, “The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”
A Nazi concentration camp is one of the worst possible places you could find yourself in, but even then, Frankl managed to sustain his humor.
Learn to laugh at yourself, at your mistakes, your fears, or any tough situation you find yourself in. Having a sense of humor is a common trait among the strongest people — To be able to laugh reminds us that maybe a situation isn’t as bad as we think it is, that life still has to go on.
There are plenty of ways to have fun too : Ride your bike. Watch a silly movie. Play a video game. Go for a drink with a buddy. Busy yourself with a craft.
If I were to personally recommend you an activity, it would be cooking, if it hasn’t been a part of your life yet. There’s just a really satisfying and calming feeling you get from using your hands, smelling the fragrant aromas, developing an intuition for the ingredients and their right amounts — And on top of all that, you get to eat what you make. So why not?
Find a Higher Purpose
“I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”
During one of his lectures, Viktor Frankl was once asked to express in one sentence the meaning of his own life. He wrote it on paper and asked his students to guess. A student surprised him by saying, “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.”
“That was it, exactly,” Frankl said. “Those are the very words I had written.”
In the concentration camp, Frankl poignantly described the prisoners who gave up on life, who had lost all hope for a future and were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food or medicine than from a lack of hope.
He wrote, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future — His future — Was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and become subject to mental and physical decay.”
He also said, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.”
When you feel crippled by hard times, always try to remember that life, that the future is demanding something from you — Something of value that only you can give.
Always consider the possibility that, what if underneath all of this hardship, there are certain benefits that are specially meant for you, and not for anyone else? What would you have to lose? What meaning would you give to your hardships?
For Frankl, his meaning for his torture and watching his friends and family die in the concentration camp was so that he could show the world that with a strong enough reason to live, we could bear almost any situation we find ourselves in.
If you really think about it, because you have gone through your painful experiences, you’re now in a position to be of service to many other people who might be dealing with similar situations. As Frankl said, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” We give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.
Take your time to think, because in actuality, we’re not the ones asking what the meaning of our life is. Rather, life is asking us that question.
Frankl wrote, “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose and therefore no point in carrying on.”
And to that, we can beautifully relate with the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who said, “There is only one thing that I dread : not to be worthy of my sufferings.”
“Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. It comes from gratitude for what’s good in our lives and from leaning in to the suck. It comes from analyzing how we process grief and from simply accepting that grief. Sometimes we have less control than we think. Other times we have more.
I learned that when life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”
There’s this great analogy about an egg, a carrot and some tea leaves when placed into boiling water. As you can guess, the egg hardens, and the carrot softens. But the tea leaves turn the hot water into a refreshing beverage, and it gives out a good aroma to the people around it, too.
That just goes to show how people react differently to hardships. But I know that you, like those tea leaves, can undoubtedly turn your situation into triumph, no matter how tough it is. And I believe that you’ll make things work for yourself while also adding tremendous amounts of value to the world around you.
I know it’s hard to think good thoughts when you’re under so much pressure. But always remember that you’re still here. And you need to give yourself credit for that. You’ve grown so much stronger just by surviving through these tough times.
Do all you can to learn to love the person who has gone through so much in her life but is still standing — And that person is you.
Before I close off this article, I’ll leave you with just one final lesson, and that is to respect your feelings. It is okay to feel hopeless in this moment. Time does heal things, feelings do change, and things do get better.
If you’re just starting to go through a really tough situation, take cry-breaks whenever necessary. There could be times when you’re laughing your butt off, and the next moment, you suddenly feel like stepping out and crying. And that’s alright.
If you’re feeling fearful, it helps to write your fears down and to come up with reasons why they’re completely untrue. And if you’re feeling down most of the time, it does help to write about joyful moments you had in your day. I’m sure you’ll find that things aren’t as bad as you imagined them to be.
Keep marching on. It’s going to be alright.