Strong at the Broken Places

Stuff happens—or fails to happen—all the time, right? We face challenges, reversals, missed opportunities, and tragedies in both our professional and our personal lives. In our day jobs, a highly visible project misses a deadline. The telecommunications network collapses in the middle of registration. A key contributor takes a hike. Your new supervisor is clueless. You don't get the promotion you earned and deserved. The president no longer remembers your name.

Or, on the personal side, the upstairs shower is leaking through the kitchen ceiling. You're bored with your friends, and your friends are bored with you. The estimate for engine repairs is more than the car is worth. All your plants died when you forgot to water them for a month. You look in the mirror and wonder when you got old. There's too much month at the end of the money.1 A loved one is sick or dying.

Common phrases that many us heard from our elders when we were coming of age acknowledge that life is a mixed bag. Win some, lose some. Into each life some rain must fall.2 I take the good with the bad.

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote: "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."3 Professional challenges and personal misfortunes don't respect race, religion, age, gender, or social status. Rich or poor, born blessed or cursed, we are all visited by difficult times.

But that part about ending up strong at the broken places—how does that happen? What do we do to cope or, perhaps, to thrive in the face of adversity?

For some, a strong spiritual life or deep religious faith provides comfort and strength. Others may rely on family, friends, loved ones, mentors, coaches, or therapists for solace, support, and insights during difficult times. Some throw themselves into hobbies or physical challenges – run a marathon, climb a mountain, cycle the continent! And some retreat into the bottle or engage in other destructive behaviors. Most of us have been there, struggling to find ways to cope with one of life's unfair circumstances.

I've lately been trying ADA, a three-step process of acceptance, detachment, and appreciation. I don't claim that it's a perfect approach. It surely isn't easy, and I don't pretend that I'm getting the process "right." I'm reminded of another phrase inherited from my elders: It is darkest before the dawn. It seems that if I stay focused on ADA, I have a better chance to hang in there and find my way through the dark—no matter how scarce the light.

Let me hasten to add that this is not a sequential, neatly compartmentalized schema. Like many things involving human emotions, the process is messy. Think of a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles labeled acceptance, detachment, and appreciation. Sometimes when we face troubled waters, detachment may arrive first—or appreciation may be first in line, with acceptance to follow (DAA or AAD). The union of all three circles at the center of the diagram may represent resolution or peace or your happy place! The exact sequence is less important than being self-aware enough to recognize and name what you're feeling when your world is wobbling on its axis.

Acceptance

On the topic of acceptance, the go-to standard for American culture for much of the last century has been the Serenity Prayer. The secular version, without reference to a deity, is familiar to many of us: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." This deceptively simple prayer is attributed to the eminent theologian Reinhold Neibuhr in the 1930s. But there are plenty of antecedents from other cultures that reflect similar sentiments. Clearly, acceptance is an important challenge across much of humanity and is not simply an artifact of contemporary, First World life.

The Serenity Prayer is deceptively simple because it asks us to do something that is very hard for most of us: understand the difference between what's fait accompli and what's not, and act accordingly. That's a tall order. Many of us in higher education are driven to excel, to accomplish, to solve problems. That's great, and our bosses usually love us for it. Except, sometimes our drive and our enthusiasm for finding solutions is misplaced or misdirected, and we risk contributing to the problem rather than its resolution. Like Don Quixote, we are "tilting at windmills."

Believe me, I've done my share of tilting. Sometimes I'm arrogant and stubborn ("Yes, I'm right!"), and at other times I'm naive and clueless ("What just happened here?"). The result is the same either way: I don't give up the battle and accept when, in retrospect, I should have. I fail to recognize that everyone else has moved on.

How can I become more graceful in practicing acceptance? I'm afraid I don't have a magic formula to share. For me, serenity is a key, wherever and however I can find it: jogging through the neighborhood, walking along a quiet beach, losing myself in a crowd, frolicking with my grandchildren, finding a form of prayer or meditation, talking to someone (or talking to several someones), developing my emotional intelligence so that I can read people and situations better, watching other people who seem more ready to accept than I and trying to figure out what works for them, asking for help, practicing. As I age, I find that acceptance is not as mysterious as it seemed to me at an earlier time. It's a skill like any other, and I can get better with practice. Never perfect—but better.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum often writes about mercy. A recent profile described her preparations for a lecture she delivered a quarter-century ago, at a time when she had received word that her mother was dying:

The lecture was about the nature of mercy. As she often does, she argued that certain moral truths are best expressed in the form of a story. We become merciful, she wrote, when we behave as the "concerned reader of a novel," understanding each person's life as a "complex narrative of human effort in a world full of obstacles."

In the lecture, she described how the Roman philosopher Seneca, at the end of each day, reflected on his misdeeds before saying to himself, "This time I pardon you."4

Nussbaum reminds us that the people, institutions, and situations we engage are rarely as simple as they may appear on the surface. Coming to acceptance requires that we embrace complexity despite the allure of simplicity. And embracing complexity may lead to mercy for others, yes, but mercy also for ourselves as we accept where we fall short.

Detachment

Detachment goes hand-in-hand with acceptance. For me, detachment is synonymous with gaining objectivity or with operating at a slight remove from the immediacy of a situation that may be troublesome to me. I try to remember that in many or even most instances, the situation is not something that I should be taking personally as a reflection of who I am at my core. Detachment does not imply lack of interest. On the contrary, my interest may remain very intense. But detachment helps me remove as much of my core self from the equation as possible.

I like to bake desserts. Let's suppose there's a holiday party coming up and my contribution will be six dozen yummy chocolate chip cookies. I'm excited. I shop for fresh ingredients—plenty of butter, eggs, flour, pecans, and chocolate chips. I grab a bag of butterscotch chips too. A few of these added to the mix will cut the chocolate and give a nice undertone to the taste of the final product. I preheat the oven, grease the cookie sheets, mix the ingredients, and lovingly arrange dollops of dough in neat rows and columns. The first batch isn't perfect, of course – a little too crispy – but part of the fun of baking cookies is eating your mistakes!

The party is great fun. On the drive home, my wife mentions that people loved my cookies—not a single cookie remained at the end of the evening! But the story is a little more complicated than that. At one point during the party Joe, looking a little glum, had mentioned to me that the cookies looked great but that he's on a gluten-free diet and couldn't partake. Janet took one bite and—there's no way to put this delicately—spit it out into a napkin (she despises nuts). Harry the vegan advised me that I could do better next time with a healthier substitute for butter. And Shirley cornered me, after one too many cups of spiked punch, to explain in excruciating detail why her cookies, her mother's cookies, and her cousin Hildy's cookies win blue ribbons at the county fair and mine never will.

Well, what a great opportunity for me to detach! These good folks all brought their own issues to the buffet table, and I could have taken their comments personally. But honestly, their issues didn't have much to do with me. The cookie platter was licked clean at the end of the evening, and compliments outweighed criticisms by a ratio of 3-to-1. I even observed Shirley gobbling three cookies, and my wife saw her stuff two more in her purse when she thought no one was looking!

Taken to an extreme—as a response to trauma, for example—excessive or prolonged detachment or depersonalization can be a symptom of emotional distress and perhaps even a sign of an emotional disorder. But that's not what I'm referring to. I'm suggesting that there is value in removing my ego as much as possible, even in the face of insignificant slights, so that I may view every situation as objectively as possible.

Appreciation

For me, appreciation is often the richest part of the ADA process. Appreciation does not mean that everything is wonderful: put on a happy face, and smile, smile, smile! Appreciation can seep in even when I'm mad as hell, frustrated, or very sad. Regardless of my mood or emotional state, appreciation begins when I'm ready to embrace my experience and start learning from it.

For me, appreciation usually demands that I first gain a certain amount of acceptance and detachment. That's not always the case, nor will it necessarily be your experience. Sometimes life delivers crisis, tragedy, perfidy, or failure. Challenging though it may be, embracing that which has been delivered and learning from it as soon as possible can be the fastest path toward feeling whole again. And many are strong at the broken places.

I'll conclude with an oft-quoted excerpt from the preface to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Perhaps only Whitman could portray the many faces of appreciation so gracefully.

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.5

Notes

  1. "Too Much Month at the End of the Money," lyrics by Billy Hill (1989).
  2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Rainy Day" (1842).
  3. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929).
  4. Rachel Aviv, "The Philosopher of Feelings," The New Yorker, July 25, 2016.
  5. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, preface (1855).

Bill Hogue (wfhogue@mailbox.sc.edu) is Vice President for Information Technology and CIO at the University of South Carolina.

© 2016 Bill Hogue