How to Survive Life’s Roughest Patches
January 17, 2013
— Beck, books, Health, Human, Learning, Martha Beck, Shopping, United States
“What is happening to my life?” said Dorothy, exhaustedly sipping a triple espresso across the table from me. “Did I do something to deserve this?”
By “this,” Dorothy meant a series of crises that had recently hit her like a gang of meth-crazed prizefighters. Her husband had filed for divorce—a week after she lost her job, the same day she was diagnosed with diabetes. Then her best friend moved away. Now Dorothy was caring for both her aging parents while paying a divorce lawyer way more than she (or her retirement account) could afford. “I’m not sure I can go on,” she told me. “Why is all this happening at once?”
“Well,” I said, “according to probability theory, random events can run in streaks. It’s like patterned disorder, and in nature it creates beautiful things.”
Dorothy looked as though I’d poured mouse droppings into her coffee. “That’s your explanation? My screwed-up life is just beautifully random?”
“It’s the most rational explanation,” I said. “It’s not my explanation.”
I shrugged. “I think you’ve hit a rumble strip.”
Then I laid out for Dorothy what I’ll now lay out for you, just in case your own current luck makes Job look like a lottery winner. I don’t know why catastrophes sometimes come in clusters. But experience and observation have convinced me that these patches of awfulness may be purposeful and, in the end, benevolent. If you’ve had a run of horrible luck, you can tell yourself you’re being tortured or punished. Or you can decide you’re being steered.
Imagine that your true self is your essential consciousness, the part of you that still feels what it was like to be you ten years ago, even though most of the atoms in your physical body have been replaced since then. Suppose you set out to experience the adventure of human life by inhabiting your body. And that this essential you sees your life as an epic road trip. Destination: inner wisdom, love, and joy.
Now let’s suppose you forgot this destiny at birth. In its place you created a mental map of the life route you preferred—passing through good health, perfect romance, and professional success on the way to a cheery, painless death (say, being struck by a meteorite while bicycling at the age of 110).
Unfortunately, your essential self very probably has in mind a stranger and more exciting road, featuring spooky tunnels, scary precipices, and sharp curves. Which means your destiny isn’t at all what you think you want. Which means that as you drive along the road of life, there will be times when your essential self plans to turn even though you most certainly do not.
Behold the Rumble Strip
If you’re paying attention to your environment, relaxing and following the road, detours from your mental map may be unnerving but not catastrophic. Maybe you planned to become a dentist and marry your high school boyfriend, only to realize that (1) you hate staring into other people’s mouths, and (2) you actually prefer women. So you quit dental school, break up with Mr. Wrong, and find work and love that suit your innate preferences.
Or not. This is a best-case scenario, and such scenarios virtually never happen.
What virtually always happens is that when destiny swerves, we proceed straight ahead. We step on the gas, ignoring the fact that we feel trapped in the dead relationship, stifled by the secure job. We go blind to the landscape and the road signs, steering by our assumptions about what life should be, as unaware of those assumptions as a sleeping driver is of her unconsciousness.
Et voilà: rumble strip.
Suddenly, everything’s shaking, jolting, falling apart. We have no idea what’s happening or why, only that all hell has broken loose. It gets worse and worse—until we wake up, see through our false assumptions to the deeper truth of our situation, and revise our life maps. This isn’t punishment. It’s enlightenment dressed as chaos.
My Rumble Strip
I hit my first rumble strip while driving hell-for-leather toward my third Harvard degree. In six memorable months, I was almost killed in a car accident, in a high-rise fire, and by a violent autoimmune reaction to an accidental pregnancy. I had incessant nausea. And fibromyalgia. And lice. By the time the baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome, I was pretty much done for.
It took all that to shatter my core assumption: that achievement and intellect gave my life its value. Only after my world seemed to completely fall apart did I learn the lesson my true self needed me to learn: that no brass ring is worth a damn compared with the one thing that makes life worth living—love. Duh. You’d think I’d have figured that out earlier. There were signs absolutely everywhere. But until my first rumble strip shook me awake, I never even noticed them.
I’ve had other streaks of awful “luck” since, but none has ever caused as much suffering. That’s because I’ve developed a rumble-strip coping strategy. If your own luck seems weirdly cursed, try this:
Navigating Rumble Strips
STEP 1: Hit the brakes.
When Dorothy told me over coffee that she wasn’t sure she could go on, I secretly rejoiced—not because I wanted her to suffer, but because I didn’t.
“Yup,” I said, trying not to sound smug. “The rumble strip is telling you to stop.”
“Everything,” I told her. “Except what’s necessary to survive. Eat. Sleep. Go to the bathroom. Make sure your children, pets, and sick parents eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. If that’s beyond you, ask for help. Not forever. Just for now.”
This time Dorothy looked as though I’d asked her to stab a baby panda, but she was too exhausted to argue. That was a good thing. When you feel so beaten down that you can’t sustain normal activities, it’s time to stop trying. Surrender, Dorothy.
STEP 2: Put your mind in reverse.
From a place of minimal functioning, you can back off the rumble strip—by reversing the assumptions that steered you onto it in the first place. These key assumptions are clearly marked with intense negative emotions: fear, anger, sadness. Such feelings are big red WRONG WAY signs. Back away from them.
To help Dorothy do this, I asked her which, of all her tribulations, was causing her the most pain. Topping her very long list was the thought “My marriage has failed.” So that’s where we began shifting Dorothy’s mind into reverse.
“Give me three reasons your marriage actually didn’t fail,” I said.
“But it did!” Dorothy muffled a sob.
“Well, was any part of it good?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Did you learn from it?”
“I learned so much,” said Dorothy.
“And is every learning experience that comes to an end a failure?” I asked. “Like school, or childhood, or life?”
Dorothy paused, thinking. Then her shoulders relaxed just a little. Ta-da! She’d begun reversing a painful assumption.
To be clear, I wasn’t trying to minimize Dorothy’s pain or plaster a creepy happy face over her legitimate sorrow. I only wanted her to alter her beliefs enough to catch a glimpse of a different road, where a marriage could succeed as a soul adventure even if it didn’t last forever.
Try throwing your mind into reverse right now. Think of the worst, most hurtful thing that’s happening in your life. Now think of a way this horrible thing might be good. The more rigidly you hold on to your assumptions, the harder this process will be. But with practice you’ll improve—and trust me, it’s so worth the effort. When life gets rumbly, being able to reverse an assumption turns out to be the handiest skill imaginable.
STEP 3: Find and follow smooth terrain.
Because rumble strips are one of the few experiences that will make sensible people hire a life coach, I’ve been privy to hundreds of them. And I’ve noticed a very consistent pattern: At the point when someone sees through a false assumption, the road of life suddenly turns smooth. Instead of crazy bad luck, bits of strangely good luck start showing up. They’re small at first, inconspicuous. Never mind—slather them with attention. Your attention is what steers your life, and it’s much more pleasant to steer by focusing on the good stuff.
In Dorothy’s case, the moment she reversed her assumption that divorce always means failure, the waitress brought her a cupcake, said, “On the house,” and walked away. Later that afternoon, Dorothy found an abandoned New York Times unfolded to an article titled “The Good Divorce,” which helped and encouraged her. Then she ran into a former boyfriend she hadn’t seen in years. During their brief interaction, he told her how much he still respected her, and how valuable their “failed” relationship still was to him.
Little miracles like this will begin happening to you whenever you turn toward your right life, even if you’re in the middle of a rumble strip. If you stop everything you think you should be doing, surrender to what’s actually happening, reverse your assumptions, and steer toward the glimmers of light that appear as your old beliefs shatter, the small miracles will turn into big ones. Eventually, your good luck will seem as incredible and mysterious as your bad. Once more you’ll be asking, “Did I do something to deserve this?” Only this time, the question will arise from a sense of overwhelming gratitude, not overwhelming pain.
By the way, the answer to that question is yes. You did do something to deserve this. You had the courage to keep traveling the precarious road of life. You deserve to be guided. And rewarded. And, when all else fails, rumbled.