Dealing with Unexpectedness
On impermanence, the value of hardship what I'm learning from battling with life's burdens
In the last quarter of 2020, I was reminded that the only constant thing in life it's impermanence. While I have a great interest in philosophy, I am as naive as they get. Probably for the good of my mental health, I live in the illusion of safety. I plan out things in the years to come; I disregard the daily negative thoughts about death, illness, misfortune and tragedy and focus on what I consider productive - my day to day life and work that theoretically slowly fulfil my long-term goals.
But last year was different for us all - it was a stressful year, with a raging global pandemic sweeping across the world, laying havoc wherever it landed. One thing came out of this pandemic - safety and security weren't as concrete as we all wanted them to be. My whole family had to battle the virus that almost took the life of my grandma, who's been fiercely fighting illnesses in the previous couple of years. My father developed severe mental problems that cripple him to this day. His sickness lead to an unstable atmosphere in my family that I had no choice but to fix to keep us together. On my end, things went lighter - at least my wife and her family were good. Due to all the stress, I developed mild anxiety symptoms, and I had to go through a winter filled with sleepless nights, constant headaches, often therapy visits and panic attacks. And looking back - we were the lucky ones - at least we all ended up living.
And while the previous two paragraphs have been on a very dark note, this newsletter post is not about the damaging effects of the burdens we go through in our lives. Instead, I'd like to emphasise what a great teacher hardship is, and how overcoming the difficulties made me feel more understanding, confident and content with what's in front of me.
I'm sure that you've encountered the term "mental toughness". It's a feature that's praised in all humans possessing it. There are many books solely based on the journeys of mentally tough people - Endurance, Can't Hurt Me, Discipline Equals Freedom, Grit and many more. A year ago, if I had to answer which part of me I'd want to improve further, I would have replied - "my mental toughness, of course". The benefits of bending, rather than breaking, in challenging situations are almost irreplaceable, and all the people I look up to, family, friends, and others, possess this trait. Shortly said, for me, mental toughness is a trait that I respect wholeheartedly.
But the challenges I went through in the previous nine months taught me the value of being mentally soft. Discovering through teary eyes, the support of my wife and the guidance of my therapist allowed me to see aspects of myself that I didn't know existed. I allowed myself to be gentler in my mind and heart, which significantly improved how I perceive the situations at hand.
In cases in which I judged and acted hostile, I was gentle and understanding; in a situation in which I'd scold someone for not being gritty, I supported them and reminded them they'll push through. In a sense, hardship taught me the difference between mental softness and mental fragility, allowing me to push through the burdens in a reasonably healthy fashion.
I discovered that when I'm under a tremendous amount of stress, I tend to lose motivation and interest in most things that bring me joy. For example, photography became meaningless. Writing because obsolete, since it required a lot of energy and focus that I wasn't willing to spend on things outside of work. Reading because almost impossible, because most of the works I read were too emotionally heavy for me to bear at that time.
The only thing I was consistent with was going to the gym. It was the only place I had to be present with mind and body; otherwise, I would have injured myself. Since I'm very self-judgmental, I had two options with that situation at hand:
Furth worsen my mental state for not doing what I wasn't capable of based on my biochemistry
Accept myself for what I was at that present time.
Thankfully I was reasonable, and I chose the latter. Accepting oneself was a liberating feeling, and I'm certain that it helped tremendously give me a bit of headspace in which I felt like I could manage my life better.
Common Sense and Logic
And last but not least, overcoming hardship taught me how to look at things from a more rational standpoint. When I felt helpless and lost, I aimed to see things with common sense rather than emotion. I found out that I had no control over most things in life, and that is natural. To function properly as a husband, son, grandson, worker, and friend, I peacefully accepted that I'm out of control over most things surrounding me.
And while all of us know this already, it felt challenging to embrace this obvious fact. The hardest part was that by admitting my lack of control, a layer of security instantly disappeared. Yet, there are great benefits of accepting impermanence. Like many things in life, control is an abstraction – and with my current understanding, I found that the only applicable control I have is over myself. Accepting this, I started discovering negative thoughts, actions and patterns that the people around me and I had had in common, which deepened my interest in human nature even more.
Impermanence feels like the only constant in our human lives – the ups and downs we go through are as natural as the sea's ebb and flow, yet we innately try our best not to go through hardship, which we all are destined to encounter.
Pushing through the burdens of life, I am learning that misfortune is nothing out of the ordinary and rather than fighting against it, I should accept it as it is. I had to embrace that I'll feel sorrow and fear, yet I always knew that this is for the better in the long run. I don't look forward to misfortune yet I feel that one can grow into a kinder, more accepting person through overcoming such things. And to conclude, I'll use a quote from the Father of Tragedy, the great Greek author Aeschylus, who stated:
Wisdom comes alone through suffering.
Aeschylus passed away at the age of 67 in a tragic event in which an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head, mistaking his bald head for a rock, killing the author on sight. Life’s truly absurd.