I have known a great many people that seem to have everything together in their lives. People that seem to have it all figured out. But as soon as any little wind tugs at their sails and pulls them slightly off course they pick up their ball and stomp away, decrying how unfair life is to put such a hardship into their life.
The fact is, any person can be controlled and calm and collected when their life is just fine, but who are you when your world is on fire? Who are you when the shit hits the fan and everything around you seems like it is collapsing – when you are struggling for breath against the weight of the mountain of obstacles that life has in store for you? Because who you are during those moments of your life will determine everything about who you can become for the rest of your life.
Asking myself this question and looking at the ways in which I, and others, react to difficulties in life has led me to understand that one of the greatest qualities a person can nurture of their personality is the quality of keeping your shit together when everything seems to be falling to pieces – of being a fucking fire fighter and not a fire starter.
I know it’s easy to breakdown when life has you against the ropes – to fall down into the fetal position and say fuck the world and fuck everything because I can’t catch a break and everything goes to shit anyway so why even try, but that’s the easy road. That’s the road that leads to mediocrity. To scraping by. To broken relationships that are never mended and to broken dreams that are never realized. To always being crippled by the push and pull of your emotions as you are slingshotted from shit storm to shit storm in your life. Nobody wants to live like that and nobody has to.
There is an alternative to being at the mercy of your emotions when confronting the struggles we all face. And that alternative is to work on cultivating a sense of calm, understanding and rationality despite the storms that rage around you. I will give you some methods of cultivating that at the end of this article but first I want to discuss why our reactions to life’s difficulties, both personal and public, matter.
Besides the obvious reason that it matters a great deal to your anxiety, happiness, and sense of efficacy in life, it matters more to the people that matter to you.
The Legacy You Leave
Look around you and you will see millions of reasons that you should seek to find tranquility in the chaos of life. There are all the people that need your quiet, steadfast and resolute guidance. Children that follow your example. Friends that look for your support. Family that needs your leadership. Strangers that need your reminder that in the midst of all the strange, unhinged and bat-shit-crazy nonsense that is going on in the world that there still stands some immovable beacons of calmness, sanity, wisdom, and rationality.
Oh sure. I know that rationality never finishes first in the horse races of dialog or politics or absolutely anything when dealing with irrational people and problems, but I am not talking about using rationality and sanity and wisdom and calmness to beat another, I am talking about using them to best yourself.
There is no stronger presence in a crumbling world than a person who stands unmoved and unaffected by the raucous inevitabilities of change. And if life is nothing else, it is constant change. Someone who has the faculty to search for solutions instead of adding to problems is someone who can rest confidently in the legacy they leave to the world and the people that matter to them.
If we could give no other gifts to our children or friends or family or each other as strangers, it should be to give the gifts of equanimity in the face of struggle, peace in the presence of pain and rationality in the company of ignorance. Those three things alone would change the entire world.
Navigating the Sociopolitical Landmines
But this idea of tranquility in the face of personal life problems extends further than the small sphere of our intimate relationships. It bleeds out into our interactions we have with people in the sociopolitical world as well.
We have a lot of people standing up for the wrong things right now. We have a lot of people screaming really loudly over fences built with bricks of ignorance, intolerance, hatred, and anger and all those voices are making a deafening noise of destruction.
Oh, they are saying things, Maybe things that should be said and things we should at least be able to discuss, but the way that they are saying them, nobody is ever going to hear it except for the people already shouting the same poisonous shit.
I know that standing in the chaos of that madness is difficult. It is hard not to scream right back and try to be louder than the pandemonium. But the reaction to that kind of insanity is not to stoop to their level of conversation. What we need to do is remain in control of our emotions and be the right kind of leaders.
Because what the world needs more than anything right now is leaders. I am not talking about rulers or politicians or bosses or superiors but leaders. I am talking about people who lead by example and do not have to resort to exaggerated control or bravado or puffed up pomp and circumstance.
The hallmark of a great leader is to be an anchor holding the ship steady against the beating of the waves. To remain calm and collected in the face of adversity. People see those people and they are naturally inclined to gravitate towards them. To lean in close to hear their calm whispers despite the volume of virulent voices around them.
I am not saying that we should not champion causes, that we should not fight for those causes or that we should not indulge the emotional connections we have with our ideas of right and justice and freedom and life philosophies. I am not saying we should not seek to oppose the forces of ignorance and intolerance. We always should.
I am saying that true leaders, the kind that deserves to be heard and followed and held up as leaders, are those that have a capacity for calm when all around them have been lit a flame. If you can be that sort of leader, you will always be a great value to a world that is falling apart.
Trying to Escape
The problem that most of us have is that when we are faced with some amazing struggle in our lives we instantly turn to some form of escape. Addiction, negativity, avoidance, anxiety, worry, anger. We rage against the world and we explode into emotional states that don’t speak to the quality of life that we are looking for. Obviously, this is not a desirable way of acting.
Throughout my life, I realized that the times it was hardest to keep everything together inside me were the times that I most needed a clear head and a concentrated awareness. The times when I felt most overwhelmed have always been those times that ended up being cornerstone bricks in the foundation of my growth. But it took me a long time to cultivate the composure necessary to be the kind of person that did not look to escape from my difficulties, but instead stood strong and immovable in the face of them, looking for a solution instead of adding to the pain.
So how did we become those kinds of people?
I have written before about the benefits of meditation but nothing has gone so far to help cleanse me of my natural inclination to rage against the struggles I face in living. Nothing has tempered the fires in my heart and the anger in my blood so much as my experience with meditation.
Now you don’t have to go off and study Buddhism with Tibetan monks or sit extended meditation retreats like I did. It is enough to begin a regular, committed practice of meditation in the comfort of your own home. There are countless websites and apps that can guide you through the process of meditation but the most important thing is establishing a disciplined practice. I guarantee that you will see the benefits quickly and the clarity and calm that begin to creep into the difficult moments of your life will be a soul saver.
I don’t know who you are reading this right now but I bet I know something about you. I know that you have weathered all the storms of your life up to this point. Oh, I am sure there are still some raging around you, but if you look back at what you have been able to endure already, you should be able to look at the wild winds that you face now and know that they will subside and you will come out of them stronger.
You should be confident in your courage to endure anything that comes your way because you already have. And knowing that you have the fortitude to withstand the constant barrage of shit that life brings, that should bring a quiet stability and confidence to your mind. Lean into that and know that you have a decision to make when the next struggle comes. You can feed the fires of it with negativity or anger or addiction or whatever and make it worse. Or you can stand against it, calm and collected and composed and create a plan to fix it, showing the world around you that you are stronger than your problems.
I know what you are thinking, isn’t this the same as escaping? No. It isn’t. Retreating is a conscious decision to temporarily remove yourself from a situation that is under your control. Escaping is getting away from something that has you trapped. Your problems and difficulties in life don’t have the ability to trap you. It might seem like it, but they don’t, so attempting to escaping them is only giving them more credence than they are worth.
With that being said, your problems, or the problems of the world, may require you to retreat for a time in order to collect yourself so that you can face them with a renewed vitality and a more reasonable perspective. There is nothing wrong with stepping back from a problem or situation and removing it from your mind so that you can recharge. In fact, there is a great value to it as the heat of the moment often exaggerates difficult situations.
Listen, if you can forgive my mixed metaphors and ambling analogies everything I am saying boils down to a simple nugget of wisdom that has been passed down through the ages. Poet Rudyard Kipling explained it beautifully in his poem “If” when he wrote,
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
[…] Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it […]”
But I would like to summarize that in my own words; Keep your shit together when the world is burning and don’t be an asshole just because everyone else is.
There are so many people who look to you as an example and there are already so many fire starters in the world. What we need more than anything, and what will make the most difference in your life, is to cultivate a sense of calm rationality and to be the sort of person who stands amid the blazing fires of their own problems and the world’s problems and offers water, not fuel.