It still surprises me sometimes. Awakening in the morning, stretching out my toes under the sheets as the vestiges of dreams resolve themselves into the sounds and smells of my life here and now, then gradually opening my eyes, turning silently until they rest on my wife’s sleeping face — and realizing just how happy I’ve somehow become.
Life could easily have done the mathematics of mood and biography and come up with a different result. But day after day, there it is again.
My father used to call me the stehaufmänn (shtay-owf-mahn). That’s German for guy who keeps standing up, and it refers to one of those balloon/punching-bag toys that bounces back up every time you knock it down.
Lord knows I’ve been knocked down a few times. Made a fortune in my forties, then lost it all. (Oops.) Lost my first business, then lost my next one, too, pushed me into bankruptcy. Lost my first child to meningitis. Lost my first marriage, then lost another.
Throughout the confusing, messy, haphazard process of picking my way from sixteen to sixty, I’ve seen wrenching defeats and slogged through patches of anguish that sometimes felt interminable.
But here’s the odd thing: I seem to have ended up a good deal happier after all these tribulations than I was before.
How did that happen?
I think it’s a question of focus.
When you go through something difficult or painful (or both), what’s the story you tell yourself about it? While it’s happening, does the little voice in your head (the inner Cronkite) say, “This is awful, this is terrible, I don’t know how I’ll ever get through this…”?
Or is it whispering, “I’ve got this. I may not see it, but there are a dozen good reasons this is happening — and once I’m out on the other side, I’ll look back and see that it all worked out for the best.”
We all have little catch phrases and habitual responses to stressful times. I’ve noticed that when I’m confronted with something unexpected and genuinely difficult, often the first I hear myself mutter is, “All right, John …”
Whatever might come next (“… what are we going to do now?” or “… there’s got to be a solution here” or “… where the hell did that come from?” or even “… I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat!”), I’ve come to see that those first few words have tremendous effect.
All right, John. It’s going to be alright. It’s all going to be alright.
Sometimes, though, I hear myself saying something a little different. Usually two words. The first one is “Oh – !” and the second one is something they won’t let you say during prime time on network television, and it only has one syllable.
The more I say the “All right, John…” and the less I say the “Oh, crap!” (or whatever) the more I’m activating my capacity to respond — creatively, productively, effectively.
To bounce back.
Everyone knows the term post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. There is another term, way less well-known: post-traumatic growth. That one describes what happens when people get knocked down by severe hard times, but then come back from it and arrive at an even higher level of psychological functioning than before.
Emma Thompson, the actress and screenwriter, put it this way:
“It’s unfortunate and I really wish I wouldn’t have to say this, but I really like human beings who have suffered. They’re kinder.”
Not only kinder, but happier, too.
And, sometimes, also more successful in life.
My father once told me about something that happened when he was a teenager, growing up in Germany during the years leading up to World War II.
One day a Nazi military parade went through his town. Needing to get across the street, he thought he saw a quick opening and tried to dart through the column of soldiers. They trampled over him, destroying his bike, and kept right on marching. I remember the hair on my neck standing up when he described the scene. (It’s standing up now, as I write this.)
The Nazis didn’t just trample my father’s bicycle. They trampled his life. When his first book was published, his name had been removed. When he showed up on Day 1 of a new post teaching at an academy in Berlin, he wasn’t allowed to enter. At the age of 19, he was forced to give up a promising career and flee his beloved homeland, not knowing if he would ever return.
The incident with the bike and the parade wasn’t just an isolated traumatic event. It was the harbinger of a life-altering personal cataclysm. Yet he described the whole scene without a trace of bitterness, with only a simple sense of marvel at how awful human beings could become. And having thus marveled, he then set the entire issue aside to focus on what mattered to him, which was how magnificent human beings can become and what beauty they can create.
There’s a word for that: resilience.
I knew colleagues of his who suffered through the war and seemed like they never quite made it back — who clung to where they’d come from and what they’d gone through, as if that necessarily defined them forever. My father refused to do that. He set his focus forward. And what a magnificent life he lived.
“The world,” as I wrote in my weddings vows, “is sometimes a large and daunting place, at turns lonely and intimidating, brutal and perplexing.”
Painful things happen. And let’s be honest. Taking a positive view of them, believing in the eventuality of a positive outcome, doesn’t make them any less painful, does it.
But it does go a long way to determining how deep the damage goes, how quickly you heal — and what direction you find yourself heading.