It is so easy to judge. Legions of “friends” and acquaintances evaluate your decision to enter treatment. Some signal thumbs up and applaud your courage. Others gesture thumbs down and render disapproval:
It’s not as bad as he thinks.
He needs to suck it up.
I’ve been through worse.
While many people are understanding, critical voices say you betray weakness by reaching for this “crutch.” Surprisingly, those who have experienced a similar problem are often less empathetic than the rest. If your friend also got over a traumatic accident like yours, research says he is probably less sympathetic than people who were lucky enough not to have had that piece of bad luck. The closer your experience is to one the other person triumphed over, the more likely he is to think your adversity is manageable. A pity, because when you reach out to the buddy you expect to be most soothing, you might discover he comforts you not.
Sometimes we must give up on such “friends.”
Nature fashioned us to survive. Like athletes trained to forget their failures quickly, we are more content if we get past the pain of remembrance. Thus, our own photo-shopped recollection of triumphing over the bad breaks of life can make us less sensitive to fellow-men when those traumas are akin to ones we once endured. Arm-chair chest-thumping is like the braggadocio of a political office-seeker who tells us how easily he would fix a national problem if only he were in office — condemning the effort of those who now grapple with the job. The sideline of life is a place where judgment produces cheap and imaginary victories rarely duplicated once the judge steps out of his robes and into the game himself.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes (up) short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat (Theodore Roosevelt, 1910).
Adding to our misfortune is the tendency to condemn ourselves. History offers examples of people who triumphed in extreme situations. We get the sense such folks are plentiful because they are the objects of story and song — as numerous as the apples on a fruit tree. If we buy-into the ease with which people survive and thrive we compound our already miserable state by observing the contrast with our own plodding struggle.
From the therapist’s chair, survival and persistence are, by themselves, heroic. Perhaps not the heroism of a Shakespearean tragic figure like Coriolanus, but admirable nonetheless.
I treated just such people in my therapy practice. For a time, sometimes for months or years, they were immobilized by the hammer blows of fate. Signs of resilience and the will to fight slowly emerged. Not always, but often.
The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.” (Marcus Aurelius, VII, 61).
Like the athlete thrown to the floor, in time you must get up.
The moment of resurrection is different for each of us. On the wrestling platform of life no referee demands a speedy rise. Ah, some in the audience will criticize, but they do not writhe in your anguish or see the torn sinews beneath your skin.
The effort to stand again is not over until you say so. Those who judge are unaware (or have forgotten) how they would react in a similar situation. Some resort to a kind of cheap self-flattery to quell anxiety at the possibility of themselves experiencing your adversity. “Oh, I would have been able to handle that” is soothing to say and makes them believe they are resilient and brave, but is lots easier from the grandstand than on the field.
Your misfortune is also a cruel opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless: to triumph over fate. Sometimes victory is just persevering.
When Shakespeare’s flawed hero Coriolanus was banished from Rome, his mother lamented his departure. He attempted to console her with words she taught him. The perspective he learned from her was that a crisis was a chance to distinguish himself as better — more heroic — than the average person:
Where is your ancient courage? you … used
to say extremity was the trier of spirits;
That common chances common men could bear;
That when the sea was calm all boats alike
Show’d mastership in floating …
In other words, it is easy for us to sail along without concern when the water is smooth.
You who are in pain would give up the suffering if only you could. Now, however, you will find out who you really are. The rest of us are waiting for whatever challenge drops on us for the chance at such knowledge. I am not suggesting we seek it. Yet, once fate arrives, do battle in whatever form you can however weak you feel. Even if taking a breath is, for now, all you can muster.
For those of you in the fight of your lives, I salute you.
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