“The best meal of their journey was the gift of men they did not know and would never see again. Like so much on the Sahara, it opened their minds to the unexpected, and to small graces in the midst of adversity.” ~ Skeletons on the Zahara – A True Story of Survival, Dean King
A Book with a Powerful Lesson
I love to read. And every once in a while, a book gets my attention enough to make me want to read it more than once. Usually several years have passed and I get to thinking about that “great read” and convince myself it’s worth my time to do it again. Such was the case with Dean King’s book about the 1815 shipwreck, survival ordeal, and ultimate rescue of Captain Riley and the crew of the American merchant vessel Commerce.
I’d forgotten how rough of a read it actually was… or maybe, being 10 years or so older, I have become more empathetic to human suffering. It is not for the faint of heart. After being shipwrecked on the Saharan coast, the crew was taken as slaves by tribes of nomads. Some were never heard from again, a few survived. They all endured physical and emotional hardships most of us cannot even conceive. Upon my second reading, I was reminded and awed at the strength of man’s instinct to survive even in the harshest of conditions.
Many of us are taught fear from earliest childhood, and to expect the worst – because it is all we have a right to expect.
This article is not meant to be a book review, so I will leave you to decide whether the title is something of interest to you. However, the quote above got me thinking. Thinking about the tendency to focus on the bad when it is happening to us, to dive deeper and deeper into the darkness, rather than appreciating, and reminding ourselves of, the good fortunes that come to us as well. Or… even bolder… to expect an unexpected bit of grace to either be gifted to us, or stumbled upon through sheer luck.
Many of us are taught fear from earliest childhood, and to expect the worst – because it is all we have a right to expect. If one bad thing happens, it is either because someone wished upon us, we have “bad luck,” or it is just the nature of the human condition.
I’ve never understood this.
Why do we so willingly greet a singular instance of badness with the expectation that more is coming? And why, when it happens, do we delve deeper and deeper into that badness – to the extent that we begin to feel sorry for ourselves, and convince ourselves that there is no way out of it, that it will likely just keep getting worse?
The men of the Commerce experienced hellacious conditions in the form of thirst, starvation, and physical duress. They had no real reason to believe they would ever see America again. In 1815, the Sahara was a violent, unpredictable, and extreme environment. Slavery was de rigeur, and shipwrecked sailors were a common target. After weeks of starvation, an unexpected gift of solid food from strangers opened their minds to the possibility of survival and renewed their faith that there is still grace to be found in the most inhumane circumstances.
Perhaps it is a trait of survivor mentality that allows for hope in the most dire of conditions? The will to live, the strength of spirit that just will not allow the idea of giving up, of not continuing the fight to escape/live/get better.
This brings to mind other survival stories, and they are countless. Most recently, the children who were trapped in the Thailand cave with their coach when the tunnel system flooded. They refused to give up, to accept a fate of death… as did their incredibly brave rescuers.
And they all made it out alive.
What distinguishes this spark of determination in a person from one who sadly but resolutely accepts a fate which is not favorable to their success and happiness?
If we look at things objectively, we will see that things very rarely do not get better. After darkness, there is usually light. After failure, there is often success. After sickness, there is generally health.
Each time we encounter difficulty, we should make a habit of reminding ourselves of all the times light and goodness followed dark and badness. Convince ourselves, through repeated affirmations, that this is only temporary, and it soon shall pass.
And when we are able to see things objectively, we absolutely know this to be true. Good does follow bad. Happiness does follow sadness. We are living proof of it.
It is also, I believe, an indisputable truth that we receive what we focus on the most. When we focus on lack, we experience scarcity. When we stay positive, and focus on abundance, life has a tendency to gift us with unexpected and wonderful graces.
You have far more control of your life than you may currently give credit for. Don’t give away that power. Embrace it, be thankful for it…
Focus on the things you want, not on the things you fear and dread. This is a matter of discipline. The way to break unwanted habits is to consciously tell yourself, “No. That is not right. I’m going to think this way instead.” And then do it. And continue to do it. Over and over again, until your newly repeatable behavior becomes a new habit, and replaces the old.
I recall a scene in an old Bob Newhart show… a patient is in Dr. Newhart’s office expressing concern over a behavior of hers which makes her unhappy. His response, “Just stop it.” On the surface, it is so unexpected, and so over-simplified, it makes you laugh instantly. But – if you stop to think about – it really is that simple. Like the old joke about, “Doc, it hurts when I…” and the doctors responds, “Then don’t do…” Same concept. Stop doing the thing you know is not good for you.
Just stop it.
When things are going south, and it appears to be spiraling down, the worst thing to do is begin to obsess over how bad it is and how much worse it will probably get. You get what you focus on. Stop focusing on how bad it is.
Instead, begin to remind yourself of other occasions when things worked out despite your worst fears. Remember the times you had good luck, rather than bad. And recall the happy times and plan how to get back to that place.
You have far more control of your life than you may currently give credit for. Don’t give away that power. Embrace it, be thankful for it, and learn how to use it better to your advantage, fortune, and happiness.
Keep yourself open to the unexpected graces that happen in the dark times. The people who are kind to you, the circumstances which are not as bad as you originally thought… and most importantly, to every opportunity that presents itself either by luck or through your own industriousness.
You are the maker of your own Destiny. No one else. Don’t succumb to negativity. Focus on the good things. Make a habit of positive thought and hope. And you will begin to see the difference it makes in your life. Happiness will increase, fear and loss of control become a thing of the past.
Life is for living with joy and hope. You decide to make it true.