May 13, 2012

How to be strong in difficult times

Imagine you are a rabbit on an open field. Your fur is a glossy brown, your muscles are strong and life flows through your veins like a rowdy river. The scent of wildflowers is so delicate yet intensely pleasant. The morning dew still dangling from the fresh grass leaves caress your fast limbs. There is not a cloud in the sky and the sun has just woken up lazily. The beautiful happy melodies of many birds play with your long and alert ears. All is perfect as you jump frolicsome with your rabbit mates. A loud shriek cuts your reality like a sharp sword cutting through straw. It is too late, rapid like a locomotive in a furious march your muscles propel you into a dash. Fear gets a hold of you, a fear like you have never known before, the fear of losing it all, of losing life. So fast yet not fast enough, talons pierce your soft and tender skin, the pointy end of the beak plucks your eye out, and then death.

Sometimes, when I'm afraid I feel this huge emptiness right on my diaphragm. The same kind of feeling when you're in a plane and it suddenly loses a bit of altitude during turbulence. Like the little rabbit about to die. A sudden cold sensation, heavy uneasiness, spreads from my upper back towards my neck. It seems as if all the air is leaving me and it becomes hard to breath. Simply terrifying. I feel like the building will just crumble down while I rest in bed, a hopelessness that takes you to the edge between crying and screaming. It does not matter what you try it seems as if you can not shake the feeling of powerlessness.

How do you summon strength before great adversity? How do you find courage when you are freaking out? How do you remain coolheaded when you are losing all that is cherished? What if everything was taking away from you; your job, house, money, and personal belongings gone, your husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend, gone, your relatives gone forever, your friends unreachable. Would you be afraid? How would you feel if you wake up today knowing that you don't have any money to buy food for lunch and your belly is already growling? How would you feel if someone you trusted scammed you in some business and you lost all the money you had saved and you are left in debt? How would you feel if your better half dies or was kidnapped by FARC? How would you feel if the person you were in love with happened to be cheating on you? How would you feel if both of your legs had to be amputated today? How would you feel if your child was abused sexually?

It could be so horrible that I feel I have no right to write about this, not even mention it. It could be so distressful that I feel scared just to type it down. Is it even possible to remain cool and positive against such terrible events?

When I was living in Bogotá, during the last two and half years of university, I experienced some level of adversity. We had no money at home, I had not a single penny to take a bus to university. We didn't know how to collect enough money to pay the very expensive tuition fees of the university. I had to walk two hours a day, to go to university in the morning and back home for lunch, then go back to class for afternoon lessons and back home again in the evening. The sole of my shoes was so worn out and deformed that once I took a nap after my usual walks and when I woke up I had such a strong pain in my legs that I was not able to walk normally for days. We reached a point were at home we were having for lunch just rice with a couple of slices of plantain, absolutely nothing else. The lack of money also isolated me from my friends, since I didn't have a way to pay for a beer or for the bus to meet them. My father told me he was not going to aid me economically if I went to private university. Besides that, I was lonely, I had passed teenagehood and I had yet to kiss a girl, I had yet to hold hands with a girl. I felt I could not be loved by any woman. My self-esteem was at the lowest possible level. I thought life sucked, I thought life was unfair. I was unable to see all the riches and abundance that surrounded me even during the hardest days; such as my own life and the best education possible in Colombia. I had a very pessimistic outlook on life. I was so confused and in so much pain.

Things changed. I moved to Sweden to start my PhD, that was a huge boost to my confidence. I was getting paid a fair salary so money was plentiful. I started meeting a lot of people and I lost my virginity. I put a lot of effort into changing my way of thinking, but surely the favorable conditions facilitated it. Next thing I knew, being positive and having and optimistic outlook seemed so obvious, it came so naturally easy. I felt like no obstacle was insurmountable, like nothing could hurt me or made me kneel before the challenges of life. I felt so strong, I believed that my strength originated from my amazing personality, insight, and wisdom, and not just from the fact that I had money and access to everything I wanted, and the validation of friends and women.

One day I wondered whether my strength was real strength coming from within, from my own inner value, or if it was just an illusion of the circumstances. If I peeled away all the layers, friends, financial stability, a professional occupation, the support of my family, what would be left? If everything was taken away from me all of a sudden, would I break? Would I be depressed? Would I be angry and desperate?

I think true inner strength originates from two qualities: self-knowledge and patience.

Self-knowledge in the form of knowing what you are really worth, unbiased by the availability of material resources, unbiased by the validation from people around you. If I lose all my friends, am I capable of making new ones? If I lose my girlfriend, do I know I am able to love again and be loved in return? If I lose all the money, do I know I am able to make some more? Do I understand that it does not matter how bad it could get, I will never be alone and there will always be someone by my side? If my legs get amputated and my wife left me because of it, am I sure that my friends will never abandon me? Am I sure I will be able to find someone that loves me beyond my crippled body?

Patience in the form of knowing that no evil or unfair circumstance will last a lifetime, that any obstacle can be overcome, that every hardship can be withstood. Solace can be found in the realization that one second will follow another, that time will never cease to move forward, that there is no shame in beginning again, that we can recover from any blow life throw at us. Impatience is such a woeful quality, it is the source of every bad decision we could make, I have said it before in another post. In my personal case, for example, I've been waiting for almost four months to begin my new job, delays after delays, and expense after expense have left me broke. It is not just me who has to withstand this but at the same time I must take care of four month's of my mothers rents and bills. It's impossible not to feel sometimes that at any moment things will go wrong, which is simply maddening. The only way to fight this hopelessness is by being patient and doing everything at the right time. If I become impatient and decide to submit a visa application without really fulfilling all the requirements as it should be, I would most certainly get the visa rejected and thus I would lose the job possibility with all the consequences that would bring. It happens to people all the time.

Knowing your worth will be your shield, patience will be your sword. Combined they will be your true strength, the true strength of your heart. That is my recipe to remain calm on the face of the great perils of life.

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