Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or business/entrepreneurship book of interest.
When I was a young boy, my grandmother passed away very suddenly, on Mother’s Day, actually. While I don’t remember her passing away very distinctly, I do remember my grandfather living alone afterwards, and I remember that he just seemed different – sad, and a bit withdrawn, almost as if he were just going through the motions. It was less than a year later that he passed away, too.
It said on his death certificate that he died of cancer, but even through my seven year old eyes I could tell that he died of a broken heart.
My grandfather’s final months are the earliest memory I have of someone suffering through a life-altering and painful event. Since then, I’ve witnessed many others – and experienced some myself. Some people handle them well and recover in a short while, often taking away some valuable lessons from the experience and using that experience as motivation for success. For others, such experiences can be the beginning of a long downward spiral.
What’s the difference? What enables some people to turn those negative experiences around and use them to build character and fuel greater success in life? After the Darkest Hour by Kathleen Brehony addresses that very question, offering a great deal of insight into how to channel the power of a painful event into something positive.
Part One – Reflections on Suffering
The Truth about Life – Everyone Lives a Drama
Everything changes. Change is the natural state of things – people change, situations change, lives change. An inherent part of that change is loss – we lose what we once had, and sometimes that loss can be deeply painful, but that loss is something that happens to everyone. While we can’t control the loss, we can control how we respond to it – the death of a loved one may be out of our hands, but it’s up to us to figure out how to respond. In that loss, though, new doors open, and often in the most painful of moments, we find that we have opportunities and experiences that are new and valuable and important. A death can bring about a reconciliation. A disaster can bring about help from unexpected places. A personal crisis can bring your true friends to the forefront.
Lead into Gold, or the Alchemical Process of Making the Best from the Worst
Here, Brehony largely focuses on the analogy of alchemy to recovery from a bad situation. In both cases, you’re attempting to turn lead into gold – one literally and one metaphorically. What’s key in both is the idea of transformation – you go through the flame and come out on the other side, transformed and better than you were before.
Brick Houses and Straw Houses: How Prepared Are We for Hard Times?
Brehony argues here that the most valuable thing we can have to prepare for a bad situation is a strong sense of self-worth. People who enter into a downward spiral after a disaster often have low self-esteem – they believe that the bad event was largely their own fault or else made worse by their personal faults. Instead of picking up the pieces and moving on, they blame themselves, making for an even worse picture of themselves. The key thing to remember is that most bad events are not your fault, and to convince yourself that it is is not only bad logic, but mentally unhealthy and even dangerous.
Some people are simply more resilient to disastrous events than others. After the Darkest Hour points to seven personal characteristics that show up in resilient people: insight (asking the tough questions and seeking answers), independence (standing alone and having reasonable boundaries), relationships (having fulfilling ties with others), initiative (pushing oneself to understand the world around them), creativity and humor, morality (having a strong sense of right and wrong), and a general resilience made up of persistence and flexibility. Focusing on these traits in the good times will make it much easier for you to weather the bad (plus, they make it easier to deal with day-to-day life).
Rowing versus Flowing: Luck, Destiny, and Free Will
Another challenge that people face is distinguishing between luck, destiny, and free will. Quite simply, the decisions and actions of others are almost always entirely out of our hands – we can hope to guide them, but the choices they make are often up to them. A concerted effort to help is a wonderful, powerful thing, but you are not the person to blame if that help is left unused. That choice not to use the help is in the hands of the other person.
Part Two – A Dozen Strategies for Growing Through the Pain
1 – Discover a Larger Perspective
No matter how devastating something seems, in the greater scheme of things, it’s not really that big of a deal. Consider the entirety of the human race, for one – the great suffering that others have experienced. Or, go beyond that and recognize how tiny humanity is compared to the whole universe. Solace in a higher power is also powerful – spirituality and religion can be a big help in putting your personal problems in perspective.
2 – Turn Toward Compassion and Help Others
Instead of wallowing in your own self-pity, look to those around you who may also be suffering and try your best to help them through this crisis. When you complement your own suffering for compassion for others who are suffering, it can make your own suffering much more manageable. One effective way to do this is to get involved with volunteer work, helping out those who are less fortunate than you.
3 – Recognize and Stop Self-Imposed Suffering
Many people take bad situations and use them to beat themselves up, offering these situations up as “evidence” of their own personal failings. If you’re experiencing something difficult in your life and find yourself using that difficult experience to “prove” that you’ve somehow failed, try stepping back and looking at the situation more carefully. Quite often, you’re not the one at fault at all, and you’re merely letting your own self-esteem down.
4 – Practice Mindfulness
Be mindful of what you’re feeling and thinking. Don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Instead, practice calmness. Brehony encourages people to take up meditation, observing their own breathing and simply get in touch with how they’re truly feeling. She also encourages yoga as an opportunity to be mindful of one’s current situation and personal feelings.
5 – Grieve
Don’t try to bottle it all inside when something bad happens. Allow yourself to grieve. Cry. Let that pent-up energy flow out in a non-destructive way. Find a shoulder to lean on, if you need one. Talk about what you’re feeling, and remember the positives of the life that person led or the situation that has now ended. I’ve always found that a wake helps more than anything for a funeral – get everyone together who cared about the deceased before the funeral, and share food, drink, and remembrances.
6 – Build Good Containers
“Containers,” in this context, refers to stored-up love and positive feelings that you can tap into when you need them. In other words, spend time when you’re happy building deep and strong relationships with your family and your closest friends, and then tap that positive relationship when you’re facing a disaster. Reciprocate, too – be there emotionally for your friends and family when they need that shoulder to lean on.
7 – Count Your Blessings and Discover the Power of Optimism
It’s often hard to think of the positives in a negative time, but stopping for a moment and thinking of all of the positives in your life when something’s wrong can be a great way to put that negative experience in perspective. Think of all of the people you care about, and those who care about you. Think about all of the great experiences you’ve had, and the experiences you’ve got planned for the future. Your life is filled with great things – step back and look at them when the chips are down.
8 – Find Courageous Role Models and the Hero Within
Brehony suggests also finding a few personal heroes, particularly ones that have overcome personal tragedy to accomplish great things in their life. For example, I often use FDR as a personal hero, and I reflect of the dark times of the early 1920s when he was struck with Guillain-Barre Syndrome and largely became confined to a wheelchair. He nearly died, found himself with a body unable to do what he wanted, and nearly gave up. But he recovered and went on to guide the United States through the Great Depression and almost all of World War II. Many others have survived situations when the chips are down and gone on to much greater things.
9 – Keep a Sense of Humor
Laugh. That seems impossible during some of the saddest times, but laughter is often the best medicine for what ails you. Above, I mentioned the idea of a wake for a person who has passed on. Take that opportunity to tell humorous stories about that person, ones that will get everyone to laugh about a fond or funny memory. I remember my family having many informal wakes for people – recently, we had a wake for my deceased uncle that was filled with laughter, which helped everyone deal with the situation.
10 – Express Your Feelings
When you’re feeling pain, it’s healthy to find ways to express it. Start a journal and write down exactly what you’re feeling. Dig into an art form that has meaning for you. If all else fails, just call on someone who’s willing to be an ear and talk it all out. Say what’s on your mind and in your heart – just get it out there, so it doesn’t sit inside of you and weight you down.
11 – Silence, Prayer, and Meditation
For some, introspection may be the answer – I know that for me, silence, prayer, and meditation all help in times of crisis. It provides a chance for me to reflect on what’s really happened – what I’m missing now, what I’ll do next, and what I still have in my life to cherish. For me, such meditation is part of the grieving process, making it easier for me to internalize what happened and move on.
12 – Come to Your Life like a Warrior
Negative events are something to be conquered and something to gain experience from, much like a warrior on a difficult quest. Face this negative event like an enemy – focus on it intently, defeat it, and learn from it. Treating a negative situation with intensity and all of the strength you can muster can help you build a path to success beyond the situation.
Some Thoughts on After the Darkest Hour
Many of the techniques discussed can be a strong part of daily life, even if you’re not suffering from a negative situation. I meditate and pray daily, and I make an effort to work on many of my personal relationships, too. There will come a time when this effort put into relationships will pay off – people will be there for me when I need them, and my own routines of reflection will enable me to internalize the pain.
One of the big meta-themes is that the process of internalizing pain is often fertile ground for growth. When something bad happens and you deal with it in a healthy and successful fashion, you often will find that doors are open that were blocked before, either by the pre-existing situation or by your own attention in different directions. If you let the pain obscure these doors, you miss out on potentially great events.
Is After the Darkest Hour Worth Reading?
After the Darkest Hour is the perfect book to read if something very painful has just happened in your life and you’re having a very difficult time internalizing it, falling into traps of blaming yourself and surrounding yourself with negativity. We all weather painful events in life, and there are two outcomes from it: you can either let it drag you down or let it lift you up – this book does a very good job of pointing you to the latter.
After the Darkest Hour is one of those books to keep in mind for when the situation happens. Most of the time, it won’t have any value to you at all – it doesn’t really help when things are going well at all. The information inside really only steps up to the plate when things are at their worst: someone you deeply care for dies, you’ve lost a key relationship, or something else crucial in your life is lost. In those situations – particularly when you’re finding your negativity and pain festering and perhaps building – After the Darkest Hour can offer some excellent advice. This is a great one to check out from the library during those key moments.