Some time ago in a blog essay I wrote the following:
M Scott Peck began his great little book The Road Less Travelled in this way:
“Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Buddhism has come to a similar conclusion. This is embedded in The Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth states that:
“Life entails suffering.”
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.
Consequently we must expect adversity. But if suffering is inevitable there are two things we must learn:
1. Our greatest defence is in increasing our resilience, and
2. We should not increase the burden of our suffering by allowing our egos to concoct spurious psychological defence mechanisms.
Most of those who take affront when confronted with ideas and opinions that are contrary to their own are indulging in the latter error.
In the face of the inevitability of suffering people offer varied responses. Many of us resile from suffering in its myriad of forms real and imaginary. Others face the reality of the world and become resilient. Still others affect suffering as means of manipulating others to get what they want. (This latter phenomenon is described in Narcisso and Burkett’s little book Declare Yourself as part of a suite of behaviours which they appropriately call “get-my-way behaviours.) Unfortunately in a world that promotes victimhood, we are seeing more and more of this pathetic response.
That our flight to victimhood is so pervasive is reflected in the draft discrimination law proposed by the federal government which proposes that it should be an offence, punishable by law, to say or write something that might be construed to give offense to anybody. This denies the fact that many who take offense do so in order to avoid facing up to the uncomfortable facts which threaten their beliefs. It is surely in our best interest to see the world as it is and not to resile from information that challenges our world view.
It seems to me that many folk confect offense rather than have to deal with ideas contrary to their personal beliefs. This suggests to me either intellectual laziness or a reluctance to interrogate a belief system which they have assumed without question but gives them some solace.
The Buddhist philosopher and ecologist, Joanna Macy writes:
“It is essential that we develop our inner resources. We have to look at things as they are, painful and overwhelming as that may be, for no healing can begin until we are fully present to our world, until we can learn to sustain the gaze.”
The Australian author, film maker and social commentator, Anne Deveson wrote;
“Resilience grows from facing reality, not languishing in fantasy land.”
As we know from the awful consequences of this week’s weather events, many of us have to suffer physically from causes beyond our control. But it seems to me that the greatest suffering most of us have to endure is not physical – it is brought about by those things that assail our sense of self.
Whilst we have learnt over the years to grit our teeth in the face of physical adversity it seems that we are lesser prepared to deal with assaults on our psyche. Let me suggest that there are some very practical ways to deal with this problem
1. Practice Awareness
When you are under fire from others, notice your emotional response as soon as you can. Just as in physics there is stimulus-response dichotomy, in our personal relationships there is also always a stimulus (say an insult or the disapproval by others) and then a response (your feeling of offence, anger or being unappreciated or whatever). What you need to understand is whilst you cannot control the stimulus (that’s someone else’s doing), you can choose the response. Most of our behavioural responses are learned and after a time we pull them out automatically in response to environmental cues. (It might be useful, if you have the time to read Declare Yourself which I have mentioned above.). But in between the stimulus and the response there is a gap and if you are aware you can use that gap. Say someone says something nasty about you. If you are personally aware you will catch yourself beginning to get angry or defensive. You can then observe, “Oops, here I go again I am starting to get angry.” Then you have a choice. You can think to yourself, “Is it appropriate for me to be angry? Is this going to help?” You can learn over time that you in fact can choose your emotional response. You can often help this process with useful defensive techniques. You can say to yourself, “Should I pay any attention to this person? Are they well-informed? Do they have particular expertises that I should value their feedback? Are they trying to manipulate me by making me feel guilty?” I can assure you that if you practice this and improve your awareness your emotional response is your choice.
2. Who should be Your Judge?
Most of your critics will impugn your motives. They will say to themselves and imply to you, “She just did this to further her own ends. She does not care whether she is hurtful to others.” Or whatever. These are all assumptions on their part. You know what your motives were. And I know that, despite this slight, you are normally well-motivated and not setting out to deliberately “hurt” people. In the end you should learn to be your own judge. Sure, on some occasions you might want to be directed by someone who has greater knowledge or experience. But again that is your choice. Take advice and react to the criticisms of only those people whose judgment you trust. Most of those being critical of you are in no position and hold no particular authority to judge you.
When people give you feedback (positive or negative), just smile (maintaining your equanimity) and say, “Thank you for your feedback – I will give it some consideration.” And then feel free to discount the criticism of those whose judgment you do not value and ponder on the words of those whose judgment you do value.
And when is all said and done, know this – from the perspective of the universe, “All is well”. It is useless to try to avoid the adversities that the universe bestows on us. Know with certainty that life in it own strange way blesses us and provides opportunities for learning and love. And there resides resilience!