I’ve been thinking about four universal ways in which we (can) handle Crises in life: Big stuff – like somebody dying or losing our health or livelihood. Those categories.
I suppose you could call them strategies but in reality they are probably more like modes of action, derived from a combination of habits, capabilities and whatever social and spiritual support we can command at any given moment.
Much of a given way or strategy may be unknown to us – a response without thinking. There may be overlaps and different reactions in different situations.
Here they are:
1) Transcending the problem – often but not always impossible. As long as I am human I will always be vulnerable to fears of death, danger, suffering of myself and other people. Forget about transcending everything therefore. But I can go some of the way. I can get better at transcending some problems of life, if I work actively for it. There will be room for learning to become immune to some problems, like a grown man who is no longer prone to feeling the world is destroyed just because he loses a material possession, like when he was a child.
2) Suppressing – doesn’t work to solve anything. And if it does work, that would only be as a temporary crutch, to escape from your problems through distraction, to avoid overloading emotionally. So yes, I like to recover in the evenings from grueling days at work or dealing with crises or both by playing computer games and drinking whisky. But I know it doesn’t solve anything and should only be used as a temporary measure to fill the emotional batteries. In such cases, you may call it positive distraction. Consistent suppression, though, if employed as best strategy for dealing with Big Shit all day would be to bury yourself in drinking, sex, other work, etc. And that can only bury you as well.
3) Succumbing – like giving in to depression, which would be its most extreme form. It is not a conscious strategy but something the body and mind do for you, when you have hurt them for too long. They simply shut down. So that is a strategy by omission of action to employ other strategies, so to speak. This may be the response of succumbing to feelings of despair, sadness, anger, depression is not going to help. There is a sense deep down, when you do, that you will somehow be helped. I believe that is why we allow ourselves to succumb, perhaps like children crying for their mommies, seeing this as the only way to get someone to come and take away the pain, to get out of pain.
4) Integrating – is the preferred and most grown-up strategy. I know that now. And perhaps I can only see it now because this is a time in my life when I feel strong enough to employ it consistently.
Here’s an example:
For a long time I was very easy to stress at my studies and at work. I had several periods of illness – depression – because of that. I succumbed. Meanwhile I was very strong in other areas of life, at least that’s what I thought.
For example, I thought that since I had read a lot of books about spirituality I was – almost – transcended, had moved beyond, the need to worry much about death and meaning in the world, why people suffered. I knew that. There was a little bit of karma and of spiritual evolution and salvation, all mixed up and there you go: End result good. (P.S. Don’t worry about how the children in Africa feel. They’ll get theirs, eventually.)
And ironically while I had this (arrogant) world view, I was deeply depressed about not being able to live up to my own expectations as regards making a career for myself – or choosing between arts and social sciences!!
I was, in fact, in such a poor state – around the years 1999-2004 that I could some days not bear to go out and buy a pint of milk, as the saying goes.
It was simply ‘too much’.
And then of course things got much worse …
… and I was admitted to hospital with rampaging anxiety and really thought I was going to die and my life was over. And the idea that I had transcended my fear of death, at least intellectually, was smashed to bits. Go figure …
What happened was that I had a mental breakdown of sorts – whatever you want to call it – where I meditated a lot and then this meditation, instead of healing me, made me … well … deeply unstable. All sorts of old fears, traumas, stuff I didn’t even know about, was released, and I was on sort of fear-drugs for half a year and more. I was breaking down.
I tried to meditate to get over the stress and depression quickly, and I used some special tapes to listen to beats that would affect my brainwaves in a positive way.
Instead I just became more vulnerable and more fearful, and all my wonderful ideas about how I would deal with the even bigger questions of life proved worthless.
I’ll tell you this, when you are mentally ill, in such a way that you see ghosts all the time – thinking that somebody is out to kill you, or that, at any moment you may lose control yourself and do something terrible … then all your books are worthless.
You can’t use a book on spirituality for anything. You can’t use a system.
You can just be with your fire and try to be in it until it goes out, or you learn a way to control it. You have to learn to get practical.
And the first step is to realize that you have not transcended anything.
You have only succumbed – again.
My illness in those years had followed a pattern, which I only began to see later:
First I suppressed that something was wrong – suppressed how frustrated and sad I was about my self-worth and my career-choices and the small hints that I had a very sensitive psyche in general, a bomb just waiting to go off.
Then I succumbed to stress, then depression, and then full-fledged anxiety for a combined period of 7 years, in ebbs and flows and then the final explosion in 2005 – waves hitting the cliff, shattering and off to hospital for 6 months, drugs and therapy. And then … slow healing: Integration, that was the next step.
In order to recover fully, I had to learn to control my mind and deal with my problems.
Not hide from them. Not suppress them. And NOT let myself be overwhelmed.
I had to realize that I could never really transcend all my problems either, but only work towards better and better integration – eventually transcending a few problems at a time over a long time.
Life is all about Integration of your fears, anxieties etc. Learning to keep them inside you, manage them, slowly reduce their importance, devise strategies to channel their constituent emotions differently.
I’m not saying you can’t heal or get better. Of course! I healed. I feel better and stronger than ever in many ways today – 10 years after my breakdown.
But then on come new crises, like the spring of 2015 and 2016 when I first lost my father-in-law to cancer and then my aunt to a heart attack.
I had to deal with my old fears about death again, about suffering, about the loss of meaning.
I also had to deal with how others, who are more frightened than I am, deal with it all.
And I’ve found that to be more difficult as I get older and stronger – dealing with family or friends, trying to nurture and comfort hem through their crises, when they are at a much different place than you, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. When they have much less strength.
So even when you shore up your own challenges, there will always be the challenges of other people whom you are close to. That’s why transcendence is impossible in so many ways. Unless you want to live on an island.
However, I worked deliberately with Integration to deal with those losses and with those fears surrounding me, impacting me, all of which I could not escape from.
I couldn’t suppress, or succumb or transcend. I could only go forward: Integrate.
First of, I accepted the chaos and sadness and confusion and meaninglessness and suffering of the two deaths in my family recently, which was even harder.
But I did not accept that these experiences of confusion and loss were all there was to these events. They were not defining for what I wanted to remember after those family members had passed.
So I worked with myself to remind myself actively of the beautiful lives these people had led, of my hope for a better world after death – despite the sometimes flimsy evidence. I allowed myself to move closer to my family in grief and share these views with them, to the degree it felt helpful for all of us.
In short, I embraced the mess, found spaces for it inside and kept my eyes focused on the lights that were.
And then I grew stronger again. And the immediate chaos did not overwhelm me, and I was able to leave it behind in a fashion, while still acknowledging that, yes, we had lost him and her, and yes, none of us would really be the same again. But we would be able to live on.
This way of dealing with crises may not sound like The Way to someone looking for the magical pill that will Solve Everything, or the best Emotional Management Strategy – sold by some guru or other online.
But it is the only thing that really works in the long run, because it is the truth.