In the 1950s, a Polish psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski studied World War II survivors and how they’d coped with traumatic experiences in the war. This was Poland, so things had been pretty gruesome. These people had experienced or witnessed mass starvation, bombings that turned cities to rubble, the Holocaust, the torture of prisoners of war, and the rape and/or murder of family members, if not by the Nazis, then a few years later by the Soviets.
As Dabrowski studied the survivors, he noticed something both surprising and amazing. A sizable percentage of them believed that the wartime experiences they’d suffered, although painful and indeed traumatic, had actually caused them to become better, more responsible, and yes, even happier people. Many described their lives before the war as if they’d been different people then: ungrateful for and unappreciative of their loved ones, lazy and consumed by petty problems, entitled to all they’d been given. After the war they felt more confident, more sure of themselves, more grateful, and unfazed by life’s trivialities and petty annoyances.
Obviously, their experiences had been horrific, and these survivors weren’t happy about having had to experience them. Many of them still suffered from the emotional scars the lashings of war had left on them. But some of them had managed to leverage those scars to transform themselves in positive and powerful ways.
And they aren’t alone in that reversal. For many of us, our proudest achievements come in the face of the greatest adversity. Our pain often makes us stronger, more resilient, more grounded. Many cancer survivors, for example, report feeling stronger and more grateful after winning their battle to survive. Many military personnel report a mental resilience gained from withstanding the dangerous environments of being in a war zone.
Dabrowski argued that fear and anxiety and sadness are not necessarily always undesirable or unhelpful states of mind; rather, they are often representative of the necessary pain of psychological growth. And to deny that pain is to deny our own potential. Just as one must suffer physical pain to build stronger bone and muscle, one must suffer emotional pain to develop greater emotional resilience, a stronger sense of self, increased compassion, and a generally happier life.
Our most radical changes in perspective often happen at the tail end of our worst moments. It’s only when we feel intense pain that we’re willing to look at our values and question why they seem to be failing us. We need some sort of existential crisis to take an objective look at how we’ve been deriving meaning in our life, and then consider changing course.
You could call it “hitting bottom” or “having an existential crisis.” I prefer to call it “weathering the shitstorm.” Choose what suits you.
And perhaps you’re in that kind of place right now. Perhaps you’re coming out of the most significant challenge of your life and are bewildered because everything you previously thought to be true and normal and good has turned out to be the opposite.
That’s good—that’s the beginning. I can’t stress this enough, but pain is part of the process. It’s important to feel it. Because if you just chase after highs to cover up the pain, if you continue to indulge in entitlement and delusional positive thinking, if you continue to overindulge in various substances or activities, then you’ll never generate the requisite motivation to actually change.
When I was young, any time my family got a new VCR or stereo, I would press every button, plug and unplug every cord and cable, just to see what everything did. With time, I learned how the whole system worked. And because I knew how it all worked, I was often the only person in the house who used the stuff.
As is the case for many millennial children, my parents looked on as if I were some sort of prodigy. To them, the fact that I could program the VCR without looking at the instruction manual made me the Second Coming of Tesla.
It’s easy to look back at my parents’ generation and chuckle at their technophobia. But the further I get into adulthood, the more I realize that we all have areas of our lives where we’re like my parents with the new VCR: we sit and stare and shake our heads and say, “But how?” When really, it’s as simple as just doing it.
I get emails from people asking questions like this all the time. And for many years, I never knew what to say to them.
There’s the girl whose parents are immigrants and saved for their whole lives to put her through med school. But now she’s in med school and she hates it; she doesn’t want to spend her life as a doctor, so she wants to drop out more than anything. Yet she feels stuck. So stuck, in fact, that she ends up emailing a stranger on the Internet (me) and asking him a silly and obvious question like, “How do I drop out of med school?”
Or the college guy who has a crush on his tutor. So he agonizes over every sign, every laugh, every smile, every diversion into small talk, and emails me a twenty-eight-page novella that concludes with the question, “How do I ask her out?” Or the single mother whose now-adult kids have finished school and are loafing around on her couch, eating her food, spending her money, not respecting her space or her desire for privacy. She wants them to move on with their lives. She wants to move on with her life. Yet she’s scared to death of pushing her children away, scared to the point of asking, “How do I ask them to move out?”
These are VCR questions. From the outside, the answer is simple: just shut up and do it.
But from the inside, from the perspective of each of these people, these questions feel impossibly complex and opaque—existential riddles wrapped in enigmas packed in a KFC bucket full of Rubik’s Cubes.
VCR questions are funny because the answer appears difficult to anyone who has them and appears easy to anyone who does not.
The problem here is pain. Filling out the appropriate paperwork to drop out of med school is a straightforward and obvious action; breaking your parents’ hearts is not. Asking a tutor out on a date is as simple as saying the words; risking intense embarrassment and rejection feels far more complicated. Asking someone to move out of your house is a clear decision; feeling as if you’re abandoning your own children is not.
I struggled with social anxiety throughout much of my adolescence and young adult life. I spent most of my days distracting myself with video games and most of my nights either drinking or smoking away my uneasiness. For many years, the thought of speaking to a stranger—especially if that stranger happened to be particularly attractive/interesting/popular/smart—felt impossible to me. I walked around in a daze for years, asking myself dumb VCR questions:
“How? How do you just walk up and talk to a person? How can somebody do that?”
I had all sorts of screwed-up beliefs about this, like that you weren’t allowed to speak to someone unless you had some practical reason to, or that women would think I was a creepy rapist if I so much as said, “Hello.”
The problem was that my emotions defined my reality. Because it felt like people didn’t want to talk to me, I came to believe that people didn’t want to talk to me. And thus, my VCR question: “How do you just walk up and talk to a person?”
Because I failed to separate what I felt from what was, I was incapable of stepping outside myself and seeing the world for what it was: a simple place where two people can walk up to each other at any time and speak.
Many people, when they feel some form of pain or anger or sadness, drop everything and attend to numbing out whatever they’re feeling. Their goal is to get back to “feeling good” again as quickly as possible, even if that means substances or deluding themselves or returning to their shitty values.
Learn to sustain the pain you’ve chosen. When you choose a new value, you are choosing to introduce a new form of pain into your life. Relish it. Savor it. Welcome it with open arms. Then act despite it.
I won’t lie: this is going to feel impossibly hard at first. But you can start simple. You’re going to feel as though you don’t know what to do. But we’ve discussed this: you don’t know anything. Even when you think you do, you really don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. So really, what is there to lose?
Life is about not knowing and then doing something anyway. All of life is like this. It never changes. Even when you’re happy. Even when you’re farting fairy dust. Even when you win the lottery and buy a small fleet of Jet Skis, you still won’t know what the hell you’re doing. Don’t ever forget that. And don’t ever be afraid of that.