Some of us grow -- or are taught -- that the forces of the universe are arrayed against us, that the planets or the gods or whoever or whatever's responsible for this cosmic tragicomedy we find ourselves in are entertained by our misfortune as the shit they roll down the proverbial hill threatens to drown us. No sooner do we clean ourselves off and claim a little dignity then the next avalanche submerges us to our eyeballs.
We find it all too easy to wrap ourselves in this cloak of victimhood. We convince ourselves that there's nothing we can do about it, that this is the way of the world and this is our role in it. We relinquish agency for changing our situation and, at the same time, responsibility for where we find ourselves. We bore our friends and acquaintances -- anyone who'll still listen to us -- with our sob stories, how we've been wronged or misunderstood or cheated.
This is a recipe for our own perpetual unhappiness, and for spreading unhappiness to all those we touch.
It prevents us from throwing ourselves, body and soul, into the important work we were meant to do with our lives.
It limits the love we are willing to let permeate the protective barriers to intimacy we build around our hearts.
It diminishes the range of emotions we can experience. We come to expect disappointment and mistrust joy.
We've already figured out the rules of the game; it's rigged, and no matter what we do we can't change the outcome. It's someone else's fault. This is the way it has always been and always will be. There's nothing we can do about it.
And all this might very well be true. Someone may have wronged you; something genuinely terrible may have happened to you; you may indeed have the worst luck of anyone in the entire world. And it may be that there's nothing you can do about it.
Are you really going to complain about your terrible luck is for the rest of your life? How people are always taking advantage of you or walking all over you? How you can't seem to get a break?
What good will that do? What kind of life is that?
To be stuck.
To not trust anyone.
To hold lifelong grudges.
To surrender to a life that's infinitely smaller than any of the other possible lives you could be living.
To give up trying.
"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."
-- Viktor Frankl
When we've exhausted all the powers of our rational mind to find ways to ameliorate a given situation and nothing has worked then the only option left is to surrender and endure it with as much grace as possible.
To control the only thing that is left within our control: our attitude.
Learn to listen closely to where your feelings take you. Are you prone to anger? To fear? To self-pity?
Do you distract yourself -- with work, with mindless entertainments, with alcohol or drugs or sex -- from the pain or discomfort caused by your feelings? Chances are that underneath the noisy emotions is a deep, quiet sadness.
But what's wrong with being sad? In our lives there will inevitably be things to be sad about. Sadness is part of the emotional ebb and flow of a fully lived life. As Jim Rohn has said, "the walls that we build around us to keep sadness out also keep out the joy."
Who would choose to live without joy?
Once you accept the sadness you can learn to endure it. To sit in the sadness and watch it as it tries to turn into whatever you've become more comfortable feeling -- anger or fear or inadequacy or hopelessness. Listen for the old stories the sadness tries to conjure in you. Listen to who or what the sadness wants to blame for your plight. Watch for the convenient patterns that emerge, and reemerge.
But don't let the sadness transform. Don't give in to the old stories, the ancient grudges, the well-worn patterns. Endure the sadness. Wait it out. Let it envelope you like a heavy cloak, until something new can be glimpsed through its dark fibers. Some new insight or realization or understanding.
Be patient. Be curious. Be humble. Be brave.
Fortitudine Vincimus. By endurance we conquer.
Fortitudine Vincimus was the family motto of legendary British polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
In 1914, Shackleton led the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard a ship called the Endurance, in honor of the family motto. Before the Endurance reached the Antarctic shore it became trapped in pack ice, forcing the crew of 28 to abandon ship and embark on a two-year struggle for survival.
The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander, recounts, in words and photos, the incredible story of how Shackleton led his crew through this ordeal without losing a single man. I return to the story of the Endurance regularly, with it's timeless lessons about leadership, bravery, teamwork, survival and, yes, endurance.