My word of the week (actually the last two weeks) is “setback.” Right after I pushed the button for Free of Gravity to go live April 1st, my computer started acting up. And over the next several days, things started getting progressively worse… until I got the dreaded diagnosis: hard drive failure. Thankfully most of my stuff was backed up…
But that didn’t help the fact that I knew where everything was on that computer, had my browser favorites marked and organized, documents filed, and everything at my fingertips.
The good news is my wife isn’t using her laptop regularly right now, so I could borrow it when I needed to (writing this on it – thanks, honey!). But moving to her machine was sort of like moving into a new house: you know you have everything you need, but it’s packed away somewhere, and finding it amid the stack of boxes is… well… rather frustrating. Especially when you’re trying to get stuff done…
So, I had to prioritize: do my paying work first, then filing taxes, then household financial stuff, other commitments, and then, last but not least, writing and this blog.
I’m slowly digging out, and am back at the keyboard (even a borrowed one) getting these words down and soon out to you.
But what the last two weeks have made me think of is just how we deal with setbacks, struggles, failures, adversity. And what those experiences say about us.
I’m reminded of one of the “rules” of writing compelling stories: give your character a goal, and then spend the rest of the story throwing obstacles in the way of him achieving that goal. For it’s his response to the obstacles he faces that show us his true nature. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
We love stories because they shed light on our own human nature, facing off against some form of adversity: whether it’s the Dark One’s horde, or the evil super-genius and his death ray, or the boss standing in the way of a promotion. Even some internal weakness our hero just can’t seem to overcome.
And we want to know: Does he persevere? Does he fail and give up? Does she try the same thing over and over again? Does she discover hidden talents within herself? Does he ask for help? Does she go it alone? Does he respond to the setbacks as some sort of cursed luck, or as just a part of the process?
And in our own lives, our own struggles and setbacks can reveal our character as well.
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
So we know that adversity changes us, just as it changes our favorite story characters. But how? How are we changed by setbacks?
Here are several ways we could change:
1. We develop endurance. If the problem we are facing just requires slogging through (like getting rejected over and over), we often learn to persevere, to endure the hardship, and in that way, eventually we achieve our goal. This is the “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” sort of change. (The quote is Nietzsche, even though it’s probably more popularly known today from Conan the Barbarian.)
We know lots of stories that show the hero learning to withstand adversity, and through perseverance and will and heart, surviving and thriving and then winning the day. Conan is a good one; so is Rocky.
Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.
2. We learn something—about ourselves, our situation, or the world. My wife and I were talking just the other day about struggles, and she said that when she faces adversity, she asks “What am I supposed to learn from this?” She wants to know what that particular setback has to teach her, so she can avoid it next time.
Sometimes there are obvious answers to this question, and sometimes not. The logical problems are easy (“I didn’t back up my computer and lost some important files when my hard drive failed; next time, I’ll back up regularly so that I don’t have that problem”). It’s the emotional problems that are hard: when we’re dealing with something about ourselves and how we feel, sometimes we struggle to even know what the issue is. Or sometimes it’s that the question is so big, so life-changing, that we have to take some time to work through it and its implications for our life. (“What if I start my own business instead of getting another job? What if I fail at it? What if I succeed? How with that change the life I’m living now, for better and for worse? Are these changes I want?”)
This learning might be a simple (or as difficult) as realizing we can’t do everything ourselves. In Batman’s Knightfall storyline, when Batman is paralyzed by Bane, he must rely more heavily on others to do the physical work for him, while he learns to focus his detective’s mind on the situation. He even must resort to allowing Azrael, a somewhat rogue sidekick, to don the Batman suit and patrol Gotham in his stead. (Not the best choice, it turned out, but that’s another story…).
But the point is that Batman, for all his abilities, needs to reach out for help from time to time. I’ve struggled with this quite a bit—realizing I can’t do it all myself, and that I’ll do my best work when I ask for help from others, and we work together.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
3. We develop, within ourselves, something new. Sometimes, we aren’t able to move forward using the old methods that have worked for us in the past, and we find ourselves stuck… until we try something different, and discover some new talent within ourselves that we can use on this new problem.
Superhero stories use this trope fairly often. The hero loses his powers, and must face the threat without them. And often, he finds that either he develops new skills, or even new ways of using lesser powers that make them more useful. The Batman story above is an example: Batman must improve his detecting skills and lead a team from the Batcave, rather than do the physical crimefighting himself. And the most recent Wolverine movie uses this too: Logan loses his mutant healing factor, and must continue to face his enemies while injured (a first for him!). Does he survive? Does he get his powers back? What does he learn about himself in the process? Makes for good storytelling… and for a good lesson in being flexible, and learning when we need to change our approach.
Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant.
I’m sure there are other ways we might change as we struggle, other things we might learn under adversity. For me, the most important lesson (and most challenging sometimes) is to forgive myself the error and move on. It’s especially hard when the critical voice in my head starts up. Saying “You are so stupid” instead of “You made a mistake.” You know the saying “You are your own worst enemy”? Yeah, that guy.
For me, the best way to shut that guy up is to do something. Right away, even if it’s something small. Something to start building forward momentum again. Getting a win (even a token one) as soon as possible.
And that’s usually enough to get me moving again, and focused on the work, and not on the stumbles of the past.
“The struggle of life is one of our greatest blessings. It makes us patient, sensitive, and Godlike. It teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”