Can I get personal for a second?
So far, 2020 has knocked me down a bit. I mean, sure, there’s been the typical stuff (work stress, different relationships, various responsibilities, and so on), but then there’s also the time that I was actually knocked down. By a tree.
My experience with traumatic brain injury
I was hiking with family and friends in Hawaii, when I heard a series of cracks and pops above us. I heard a “look out!” And I looked up to see a decent-sized tree falling—right towards us. Most of the group was able to hurry out of the way, but myself and the friend standing next to me couldn’t get far enough, fast enough. The tree hit us both. Yes, it literally fell on us.
My friend ended up at the hospital for a few hours because of her injuries (she’s fine, thank goodness). I walked away with a presumed concussion, which unfortunately turned out to be something more serious: a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The whipping motion of the falling tree hit me forcefully in the head; my doctor compared it to someone hitting my head with a hammer. And while this experience was over a month ago, I’ve been dealing with the effects ever since: short-term memory loss, irritability, losing my train of thought. It’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever experienced, and has disrupted my life in multiple ways.
And of course, we can’t talk about “disrupting daily life” in 2020 without talking about the COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) pandemic.
Thousands of people have died, and hundreds of thousands have been infected. Hospitals have too many patients and too few supplies. Businesses are closing and jobs are being lost. The economy is on the brink of collapse. Millions of people are confined to their homes. And toilet paper is practically a black market commodity.
It’s not exactly the “best of times,” for me personally, or for the world as a whole.
Which begs the question: how do we handle it?
I’ll be honest, there have been times when all I really want to do is crawl back in bed and sleep for, I don’t know, a week.
But even with that part of me trying to take over, there’s still a part of me that clings to amor fati.
Amor fati—a Latin phrase translated as “love of fate”—essentially describes an attitude of making the best of any situation.
With amor fati, a person is able to see all the things in their life, including both the Things we label “good” and “bad”, as beneficial.
The concept is one that philosophers have based their ideas off of for a long time, though the phrase is most strongly linked to Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
So basically, amor fati isn’t simply acceptance, and it’s certainly not feigned ignorance. Rather, it’s taking what life presents you with—everything it presents you with—and learning to love it.
If you’re going to do this, you have to:
- Recognize what you’re facing. “Idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary.” (Don’t worry, I looked up “mendacity” for you. It means “untruthfulness.”) This means that you can be idealistic all you want, but if your extreme optimism makes you ignore the problems you have to respond to, your optimism is a lie.
Think about if I, for example, had flown back from Hawaii, noticed the symptoms of my brain injury, but simply said “It’s nothing! I’m fine! There’s no way my brain is actually injured.” That’s an incredibly optimistic view, but it flew in the face of what was necessary: taking care of my symptoms.
If you’re not honest about the enemy you’re up against, you’re never going to defeat it.
- Say “yes” to it. Nietzsche makes it his goal to be a “yes-sayer.” As he describes it, this is an attitude of uncompromising acceptance and positivity toward any situation. He says that he doesn’t want to “attack” bad or ugly things in his life; rather, he wants to see what is beautiful, or make it beautiful.
I’m reminded of a quote from the TV show This is Us: “Take the sourest lemon life has to offer, and turn it into something resembling lemonade.”
If we want to be able to accept and love everything that happens to us, we have to be able to recognize it, acknowledge it, and embrace it. We can’t deny the reality of it, and we can’t try to change or fix things that are out of our control. We have to use what is given to us, and find a way to love it.
Should we seek, long-term, for an ideal outcome? I think yes, absolutely. And we can also stay engaged and in touch with all the layers of the current situation, allowing fate and love to guide us to our best destination every step of the way.
Why we need light and darkness
Amor fati would be much easier if the vast majority of our experiences were obviously joyful ones, right? It would be easy to accept and love the occasional hardship if the scales tipped unquestionably in favor of positive moments.
The fact is, though, life is full of both light and darkness. There are moments of joy, love, peace, prosperity, success, and confidence; but there are also moments of sorrow, loss, confusion, scarcity, failure, and shame.
You might feel bitter about the dark moments in life, especially if you feel like you get more than your fair share of them (or if a falling tree knocks you over, or you fall victim to a global pandemic). But if you think about it, the dark moments of life can be just as impactful as the light ones, or even more so.
Once you realize that you need the dark moments along with the light ones, you’ll be better set up to make the best of any situation. And it may be that the dark, sad moment now, when well endured and embraced, grants you access to the greatest light you’ve ever known. Don’t lose faith.
How to make the best of any situation
When I say “any situation,” do I really mean any situation? Yes, actually, I do. If you want to become a yes-sayer, you’re going to have to do your best to see, accept, appreciate, and love everything that happens to you.
How can you make the best of any situation? Here are a few ideas.
We often get so emotionally invested in everything that it’s impossible to look at situations objectively. When that happens, even small problems can feel like big problems.
Zoom out. Step back and look at the situation as an outsider. See all sides. What would someone else see if they were looking at your predicament? Would they see someone who had to stay inside their house for weeks on end because of the COVID-19 pandemic? Or would they see someone who managed to remain healthy while so many others got sick?
I’m not telling you to ignore the bad things because “other people are worse off.” I’m just saying that without perspective, things can seem a lot worse than they are. And with that perspective, you might be able to turn a bad situation into something you can make lemonade out of.
When we struggle to make the best of any situation, it’s often because we’re thinking about either (a) the sadness it caused us in the past, or (b) the harm it could cause us in the future. We look backward and feel depressed; we look forward and are anxious.
What if we could just be in the present? What if, instead of worrying about times past or yet to come, we just allowed ourselves to feel what we’re feeling now?
I’ve had some rough spots in my journey with my TBI. Don’t worry, I am much better and expect a full recovery! But on those tough days, it’s easy for me to either lament the past (“I should have jumped out of the way;” “If only we’d walked a little faster;” “Why did that stupid tree have to hit me?”) or stress about the future (“How long are these symptoms going to last?” “Am I going to be this cranky forever?” “Will I ever feel like myself again?”)
These thoughts aren’t productive or helpful. What does help is becoming present—checking in with what I’m feeling now. As I handle what’s in front of me, often by naming the feeling and working through it, I’m avoid catastrophizing the situation. I just have to deal with where I’m at now.
Hard times have a way of waking you up to what matters now. Gratitude is the main building block of the bridge that connects perspective to being present. It allows you to recognize what you have now, but within the context of the greater impact that has on your life.
When I think of things I’m grateful for, my close friends and family always top the list. This both draws me into the present, by helping me recognize what I have now, and gives me perspective, by helping me see that my family matters more to me than material possessions or professional success.
Plus, gratitude is scientifically linked to a more optimistic attitude. It is also linked to better physical health, stronger relationships, and improved overall happiness.
If you want more gratitude in your life, try starting a gratitude journal. It’s a simple way to make gratitude a deliberate part of your daily routine.
Stop black-or-white thinking
Many of us tend to see a situation as either “this” or “that”: good or bad, right or wrong, helpful or destructive, life-changing or trivial. That means that when something happens that could reasonably fall into a gray area, our brains have a hard time processing it. We want to put it in a box; we want to define it. When we can do this, it makes sense to us (and our brains really like it when things make sense).
The problem is, life isn’t that neatly categorized. There are things that fall into the gray areas, into the spaces in-between. Since our brains don’t like this chaos, we categorize it anyway. It becomes either “good” or “bad” to us.
But things can be both good and bad. My brain injury is bad because it has caused some setbacks in my work and personal life. It’s good because it has medically required me to get less screen time and more rest (two things my body has desperately needed for a long time). It’s hard to homeschool your kids when their school closes because of COVID-19, but it does give you a chance to spend more time focused on them.
Practice feeling things in parts. Recognize and acknowledge those parts out loud:
“Part of me feels frustrated because schools closed.”
“Part of me is grateful for the opportunity to spend more time with my kids.”
Talking in parts will likely resonate with you, because it’s a more accurate representation of the way things really are. You aren’t 100% frustrated, and you’re not 100% grateful. You’re part of each (and maybe a dozen other things besides, but we haven’t got time to cover them all.)
Let go of black-or-white thinking and allow parts of yourself to experience different feelings simultaneously. You’ll set yourself up for being able to see the good in any situation.
A life lived fully
A full life is not a constantly happy life. After all, how would you even know what “happy” is if you’ve never had the “sad” to compare it to?
When we try to ignore or suppress the negative feelings we get from hard circumstances or experiences, we are denying ourselves the chance to live a full life. As we dull the bad, we dull the good. If you’re going to make yourself blind so that you can’t see the darkness, you won’t be able to see the light, either.
Live a full life. Embrace the “bad” along with the “good”. Experience it, learn from it, grow to love it. If you can do that, you can and will make the best of any situation.
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