Consider every setback as an opportunity. Not to nullify your sadness, but to keep dreaming about what is possible. This article shows how others saw or saw opportunities in adversity, and how you can look at things differently when things don’t go the way you expected.
See every setback as an opportunity. This is quite a provocative statement and difficult to accept when you are feeling betrayed, ashamed, deeply saddened or grieving. If you lost your job, your partner left you or you just made the biggest mistake of your life, how can you accept that what brought you down can lift you up again?
If you feel like you are being suffocated by a global pandemic that has brought your life to a standstill, possibly causing you to lose your health or income and unable to breathe fresh air without a mask, what is such a situation like for you? then to offer?
You have nothing to lose by pretending that this loss also contains a gift, however improbable. You could say to yourself, ‘Okay, this can’t be anymore. That door is closed. But wait a minute, if that door is closed, where is the door that could open?’
JK Rowling, who received rejection after rejection in the letterbox before finding a publisher willing to publish Harry Potter, put it this way in her 2013 speech to Harvard students:
‘Living without failure is impossible unless you live so carefully that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed anyway.
The knowledge gained from adversity makes you wiser and stronger and makes you rely on your ability to survive forever. You won’t really know yourself and the strength of your relationships until they’ve both been tested by adversity.”
Think of people who have been beaten through life, yet have risen again, showing that a wound can hold a great gift. I am thinking, for example, of Harriet Tubman, the famous resistance fighter who helped hundreds of fugitive slaves escape to the freedom of the North years before the American Civil War. At age 11, she escaped death when an angry overseer threw a one-pound piece of lead against her head. She walked the rest of her life with a scar on her forehead.
As a result of the accident, she developed narcolepsy, which caused her to have sudden sleep attacks. During one of those sleep attacks, she had visions in which she saw the paths, river crossings and hiding places along which she could lead escaped slaves and evade the gangs of the slave owners.
On the road of transformation, there comes a point where you collapse or break through something. Sometimes the collapse is a prerequisite for the breakthrough. When he was twenty-five, British mountaineer Joe Simpson climbed the west side of Siula Grande, a mountain in the Peruvian Andes. He slipped, his climbing partner couldn’t hold him anymore and had to cut the climbing rope. Simpson fell into a crevasse and broke his legs, but miraculously managed to crawl out of the crevice.
In his book Touching the Void ( Over the edge ), he wonders how his life would have turned out if he hadn’t been facing to face with death there in the mountains, he writes:
‘Then I would have started climbing more and more difficult routes and taking more and more risks. Given how many friends have died over the years, I’m not sure I would have survived.
At that time I was a poor, mean-spirited, anarchist, crude and ambitious mountaineer. The accident opened up a whole new world for me.
If it hadn’t happened, I would never have discovered my hidden talents for writing and lecturing.’
It may take a fair amount of Chronos time for one to appreciate what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls “the compensation of calamities.” He wrote that this compensation only becomes visible ‘after a long time. Fever, mutilation, cruel disappointment, lost wealth, or the loss of friends seem at the moment priceless and irreparable losses. But the passage of time reveals the healing power hidden beneath the facts.”
One calamity is better than a thousand pieces of advice
Bir müsibet bin nasihatten iyidir , or ‘one calamity is better than a thousand pieces of advice’‘. I first heard this saying while traveling through Anatolia. I think it’s an excellent precept for life. The word ‘calamity’ comes from the Latin word calamitas , which means ‘damage, loss, failure, disaster, misfortune, misfortune’.
When faced with a calamity, words and abstract ideas no longer matter, we find ourselves among the shavings and rawness of physical events. Ordinary time stops, all our calculations and reasoning dissolve like snow in the sun. Maybe we should leave as quickly as possible, or just survive as a sort of suspended animation.
Everything is different, we can no longer live as we used to. This can give us a curious and beneficent sense of consent, even though we feel we are being punished: permission to go beyond and above all normal conventions, duties, and requirements.
It is said that illness is a western form of meditation. Calamities may well be a universal gateway to transformation if we recognize, seize and use its educational opportunity for a breakthrough rather than a collapse.
The title of this article ‘What stands in your way may be your way’ comes from the personal notes of the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. He didn’t write down his thoughts for publication or posterity, they were notes for himself. He also did not give his notes the title Meditations (the title of the English-language book that appeared in Dutch as Overpeinzingen ), which an editor gave them much later.
Marcus Aurelius is portrayed in Richard Harris’s film Gladiator. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know that (barring the cinematic exaggeration) he wasn’t an armchair philosopher, didn’t have a happy childhood, and his empire was under siege.
Yet in the midst of the battle, he could continue to describe all the explosive events around him from the observer’s point of view. He formulated two basic principles which in my view are essential precepts of life. The first is that our lives are colored by our imagination.
The second goes like this: “We may be hindered in our actions, but our intentions and dispositions must not be threatened. We can adapt and tune in. The mind modifies and changes the obstacle that stands in the way of our action according to its aims. In summary: ‘The obstacle to action precedes action. That which stands in the way becomes the way’.
What a wonderful invitation to reverse our automatic response to adversity and look for the opportunity in the obstacle and the gift in the challenge! You don’t want to tell yourself that everything is fine. The intention is that you make it right.
The obstacle itself is less important than the way we look at it and react to it. We are able to choose our attitude and adjust our way of seeing. At the other end of the social spectrum, directly opposite the Emperor, we encounter another Stoic philosopher, the former slave Epictetus. When faced with an obstacle, he advises us to take a step back and look at it with a cool eye: ‘Don’t be overwhelmed by the power of a first impression. Say to it, “Wait a minute, show me who you are and what you stand for. I’ll put you to the test first.”’
This may not be easy in a storm of sadness, anger, or bitter disappointment after a setback, when you have been hurt, lost someone, under heavy criticism, or when you feel betrayed. Then it takes a lot of effort to take the viewer’s point of view and see the bigger picture. It becomes easier when we look back on our lives more often to see if good things have come from bad circumstances.