I don’t feel like I truly know or can trust someone until I’ve witnessed how they deal with adversity. And they can’t really know or trust me until they’ve witnessed how I handle the tough things in life.
When our egos are getting what they want, it’s not such a stretch to be calm, cool, kind, gentle, open-hearted, and generous. But what happens when we don’t get what we want? What happens when life falls apart? How do we handle loss? Heartbreak? Disappointment? Failure?
These are the questions that were front and center in my heart when I wrote my latest book The Anatomy of a Calling, which is all about what happened to me when everything near and dear to me fell apart.
Pain Is Inevitable. Suffering Is Optional
The Buddhists say that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Yet what does this really mean? Two of my dear friends just died this month — way too young, way too tragically — within 48 hours of each other.
I experience the loss of these beloved friends as contractions of the heart that take you over like you’re in labor, leaving you barely able to breathe. All you can do is breathe through the pain until the contraction passes, then you get a brief break, just before you get hit with another contraction.
It feels like the waves of grief are pummeling me, like I can barely catch my breath before another wave takes me down. It’s tempting to stop trying to get back up, to just resign myself to the grief and stay there, flat on the bottom of the ocean.
But if I stay there, I will drown. Somehow, although I know it may be a long time, I trust that there will come a time when I can rise strong and alchemize this tragedy into fuel for soul growth. But for right now, it just hurts.
No matter how put together you might seem when things are going well, the true test of our character arises when everything falls apart. I’ve had people in my life whom I considered close friends. We laughed, played, traveled together, shared intimate moments, and trusted each other with secrets. And yet, when adversity struck, the relationship couldn’t survive the hit.
We clung to the stories that cast us as victims, failed to open our hearts to how the other might be feeling, landed flat on the bottom of the ocean, got stuck in a downward spiral of judgment, blame, shame, and withdrawal, and never managed to get back up again.
But now I’m learning a new way to handle adversity, not just in my private life, but in relationships with others. I have several extraordinary people in my life who are learning this lesson with me, and together we're learning about how we handle the hard things, with the commitment to feel what we feel — even when it’s scary.
We're choosing to accept responsibility for our thoughts and our actions, and to avoid getting stuck in our victim stories — even when we feel pummeled by life, and to muster up the moxie to be almost unbearably vulnerable during these difficult times.
My relationships have never been stronger. Some are falling away, but the people in my life who have committed to avoiding judgment, blame, and shame, choosing instead to go “all in” when adversity strikes, are taking me to levels of intimacy I’ve never experienced before.
I am learning what real, unconditional love actually feels like, and it is raw, vulnerable, exquisitely tender, and so intimate I can barely breathe when I try to take it all in.
In Brené Brown’s new book Rising Strong, she applies the process of rising strong not just to the toughest adversity — losing a loved one, divorce, getting diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, being fired from a job, or going bankrupt — but with the smallest adversities that befall us every day.
The process goes like this:
The Reckoning: Waking Into Our Story
Recognize emotion, and get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave.
The Rumble: Owning Our Story
Get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, then challenge these confabulations and assumptions to determine what’s truth, what’s self-protection, and what needs to change if we want to lead more wholehearted lives.
Write a new ending to our story based on the key learnings from our rumble and use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live, love, parent, and lead.
How Do You Deal With Adversity?
Do you feel what you feel — or do you find ways to numb out, disengage, employ the spiritual bypass, or otherwise skip your real human emotions? Do you own your story, or do you get stuck in your victim story and blame everyone else for what happens to you?
Can you rewrite a new, more truthful, more inclusive story that allows you to accept your participation in the hard things that happen without blaming yourself, shaming others, or taking on more than your share of the responsibility? Can you come into the right relationship with uncertainty so that adversity doesn’t throw you completely off center?
It’s hard to be human. As Mariana Caplan writes in Eyes Wide Open, we should have been given a disclaimer by our parents when we were born that says something like this:
“You have come into a great mystery of immense joys and vast sorrows. You yourself are an expression of that great mystery. There are so many ways in which people learn to understand themselves and life, but what is most important is that you grow up and learn how to make your own choices — and that you make bright and radiant choices that will fulfill you and contribute to the world.
"I want to help you learn to make wise decisions in your life, particularly with respect to your spiritual journey. When you are old enough, I will introduce you to different spiritual and religious paths and practices. Meanwhile, while you are young, I will help you learn to navigate the emotional challenges that come with being human.”
But instead, most of us just got thrown into life, and now, we’re learning how to live it as vitally as we possibly can. So let me ask you. This is your life. How do you choose to live it?
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