There’s always something to howl about

What Lessons Have We Learned From Past Hard Times?

Most of us can remember a time, sometimes even a specific moment when our spirit was so beat up it seemingly had to look up to see down. I’ve had those times. They come and go for all of us, and come in so many different forms. It can be financial, health, family, or a combination of all the above. Although in my head I’m still roughly 22, and even though I’m healthy as a horse, very fit, blah blah blah, I can remember bad times like they were last week.

I was first licensed in a recession — went full time after school was done in a recession — saw my first child born in a recession — see a trend there do ya? I’d be the last guy to claim having lived a hard life, though I’ve had my fair share of, um, challenges. In our minds we tend not to step back and extract the lessons life so generously offers to teach us. But we do learn from our times in the barrel, don’t we?

You’ll not meet many folks more private than I, on that you can bank. I tend to keep to myself, though paradoxically I’m gregarious and outgoing by nature. Today I had one of those moments when it seems everything goes into super slow motion, and you begin to ‘see’ things you musta been missing. I’ll keep the subject matter to myself as it wasn’t directly about me, but suffice to say I was both emotionally and intellectually moved a great deal.

It reminded me of the lessons I’ve not only learned about life and living, but about myself — many of which were learned in the pressure cooker of desperate straits. I’d love to hear what some of you have learned when things in your life went to hell in a hand basket, but fair is fair so I’ll tell you some of what I learned in some of the darkest hours from my past.

I learned no matter how much family support there is, no matter how many friends there are, in the end we traverse through life’s most treacherous roadways alone. We make our decisions alone — even if it happens to be alone in a crowd. We deal with our thoughts alone. We deal, ultimately with our greatest fears alone.

I learned my spiritual faith was rock solid, deeply rooted, and part of my DNA. That’s a discovery I wish on everyone. Fortunately for me it happened when I was still a young man. It’s the reason I’m still standing today, and the reason I know nothing will ever defeat me.

I learned how to be brutally honest with myself. Those who know me know this about me. Knowing yourself is a gift most people really never experience. It’s value is priceless.

I learned who I’m not. Not net worth, what I drive, where I live, or any of those silly trappings. Finding out you’re the same person in all circumstances is akin to finding out you can never really be lost. Who you are is everything. Knowing who you are is the best weapon against whatever life throws at you. There’s a confidence from knowing who you are that transcends what usually passes for confidence.

I learned maybe most of all, that when I’ve suffered the most, when I felt the sun might never come up again, I was so very wrong. That no matter how bad things were, others were going through times so difficult it made my anguish and stress look like church summer camp.

Fast forward to the present.

The Stockdale Paradox is how I’d describe what some of us learn, even though sometimes, surely in my case, we’re unaware we’ve actually learned it. Admiral Stockdale was a POW in Viet Nam for a very long time, eight years — and the highest ranking officer. When asked how he survived both mentally, physically (including consistent torture) and emotionally that long, his answer was surprising to say the least. I first read about it a few years ago while reading Good to Great, one of the best business books I’ve ever read. I was reminded while reading a post today by The Mortgage Cicerone. Here’s what Stockdale said.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

He was then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

He answered, “The optimists. They were the ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’. And, Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. Then they died of a broken heart.”

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

You can help so many here by simply sharing some of the lessons you’ve learned from past challenges. What are they, and how have they helped you as life moved on?

Have a good one.


6 Comments so far

  1. Thomas Johnson July 31st, 2009 11:05 pm

    Some wise old German guy said: That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

  2. Patrick Mahony August 1st, 2009 7:07 am

    No complaints or regrets here, I board the roller coaster every morning, the eternal optimist will create the ending.

    What have I learned?….Ignore it…In this World…wait thirty minutes, everything changes. I have yet to meet a Doctor, Lawyer or Psychic that is right all the time.

    The bottom line is to keep your cool and survive. Make it back to the Wife & Kids at the end of the day, and be grateful for what you do have.

  3. Stephanie Walker August 1st, 2009 9:12 am

    This is such a profound post. And it’s reaching me at the perfect time. Thank you for sharing what Admiral Stockdale said of his experience… I can’t wait to read this to my husband. It’s such a great reminder. My husband and I have been experiencing some pretty dark days of late. Having lost our house and moved in with my family. But all along we have committed to turn this into an opportunity and a learning experience that makes us stronger. I have faith that we will make it through and the discipline to work every day to get there. But some days are much harder than others.

    Thank you for your writing and sharing.


  4. Jeff Brown August 1st, 2009 1:34 pm

    Stephanie — You’ve made my month already. The story you and your husband are writing will be told in your family for years to come. You’re becoming very compelling role models indeed.

  5. The Mortgage Cicerone August 2nd, 2009 10:08 am

    Jeff – At no surprise to me, you always end up being a cicerone to me and thousands of others! I loved the way you laid the foundation for the Stockdale Paradox and its application to living life.

  6. Jeff Brown August 2nd, 2009 10:14 am

    Much thanks — and for the inspiration too.