“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” ~Viktor Frankl
A couple of years ago, I was sitting in my little mountain cottage, writing away on a new novel. It was a cold and dark February afternoon. So, first, I felt pleasantly surprised when I saw something bright lighting up behind me: I thought it was the sun coming out. But when I turned around, I noticed that my porch was on fire!
Before I knew what was happening, I was standing out in the snow in my slippers, looking back at the entrance and facade completely engulfed by flames.
It was like a near-death experience. My mind quickly took an inventory of all the things that were inside the cottage now burning down—pretty much all of my personal belongings. However, in that moment, I realized that nothing else mattered but the manuscript I’d been working on.
Hours later, after the fire-brigade had left and I took one last look at the charcoaled ruins of what used to be my home, I finally got into the car with Marius, my border collie. (The car key survived by nothing short of a miracle.)
I was on my way to my mother’s house, nearly 100 miles away, where I would, or so I thought, crash, cry, get drunk, whatever. Any sort of self-care—bathing in chocolate or drugs, massive allowance for self-pity— seemed justified under these circumstances.
Luckily, it occurred to me that some meditation and self-hypnosis may be a good idea also. And as I tried, I immediately received some deeper intuition about what to do.
A voice of inner wisdom (or Higher Self, if you want to call it, that has access to cosmic intelligence) gave me some rules to follow in order to remain in a high state of mind, despite the misfortune that had happened.
These were the rules given to me:
- Do not, under any circumstances, drink alcohol.
- Eat a vegan, fresh fruits and vegetables-based diet. Cut all sugar. Your system is under shock and won’t be able to eliminate the toxins without further damage.
- Go to the gym every day and work out for an hour, vigorously. That will flush out the stress hormones and make you stronger.
- For now, forget about the house. Live as simply as you can and concentrate on the project that carries the highest energy and greatest hope for the future; i.e., writing your novel. Make it your highest priority, give it regular time and attention, and protect the space in which it is happening.
For sure, these were words of tough love. Wouldn’t it be, in moments of a great crisis, loss, or trauma, only natural to seek comfort and distraction? However, I’ll remain forever grateful to have received this different kind of inspiration at the right time. Otherwise, it would have been too easy to fall into a dark pit of self-pity, victimhood, and destructive patterns.
In Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Match Girl, the orphaned child is trying to make a livelihood by selling matches on the street. It’s winter and she’s suffering from the freezing cold, so eventually gives in to the temptation to light one of those matches to warm her hands.
In the moment of ignition, she feels like being back in her late grandmother’s living room, cozy with a fireplace, roast dinner, and a luminous Christmas tree. Her short-term escape, however, has a price. She gets addicted to lighting the matches; eventually, she wastes all her merchandise and dies. So can we, if we give in to temporary temptations of relief, live up all our resources, and slowly waste away.
There is, however, a high path out of a crisis. Etymologically, the word crisis goes back to the Ancient Greek κρίσις, which means decision. In moments of great danger, loss, or threat, we are forced to focus our attention and see what really matters
To me, it was in the moment when I stood there out in the snow, watching my house burn, that I realized what was the most important thing. Even before that, I took writing seriously, but only in the crisis did I learn to prioritize my soul’s calling against all odds.
The essential question of decision that arises from the crisis is:
Do we let our lives be determined by the trauma of the past, or do we have a future vision strong enough to pull us forward?
Once I was at a conference on consciousness where a very interesting idea was brought forward.
Many of us have heard of entropy: the tendency of closed physical systems to move forward in time, toward increased levels of chaos. (For example, an ice cube being heated up to liquid water (increased entropy as molecules are freer to move) and then brought to a boil (as the molecules in the vapor move around even more randomly.)
It is, however, less often discussed that—following from the mathematical equations—there also must be a counterforce to it.
This counterforce is called syntropy. Being the symmetrical law, it moves backward in time toward increased levels of harmony.
It has been suggested that if entropy governs physical (non-living) systems, syntropy must be true for consciousness (life), which hence, in some strange and mysterious way, must be (retro-) caused by the future.
Although intriguing, first, this sounded very much like science-fiction to me…
However, when I began to think about it deeper, I realized how much practical truth there was in this. Psychologically, the future indeed can have a tremendous harmonizing and organizing effect on our present lives.
Think, for instance, of an athlete who spends several hours a day swimming up and down the pool. When you ask them why they do that, they say because they are training for the Olympics. The Olympics is in the future, but it causes the swimmer in the present to follow an organized and structured training regime instead of just fooling around all day long.
The life-saving effect of having a worthwhile future goal has been documented ever since the early days of psychology.
World famous psychotherapist Viktor Frankl observed his fellow sufferers while incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. Later, he taught that those who had a purpose to keep on living (e.g., a study or manuscript to complete or a relationship to rekindle) were also the ones most likely to survive even under those horrendous circumstances.
Having worked for years with battered women, I made similar observations. In hypnotherapy we have a set of techniques under the umbrella of future life progressions, which gives the subconscious mind a chance to explore alternative futures. In one exercise, the women were asked to just imagine that overnight a miracle happened, and they were now waking up in their best possible future.
Shockingly, the individuals most resistant to change were the ones who could not imagine any future day different from their current reality. As it turned out, even more important than healing the trauma of their past, was to teach their brains to imagine a new future.
If we want to take the high path out of a crisis, we must learn that—to imagine our future in the best possible way. It begins by focusing not on the trauma, the pain, and the past, but on the single thing that feels most valuable and worthwhile to pursue in our lives. Once we have found that, our worthwhile goal will serve as a light tower for us to safely sail into the future, no matter how obscure our present circumstances are.
And what is my most worthwhile goal, you may ask. Ultimately, as Viktor Frankl also said, that is not something we must ask, rather realize that in life it is we who are being asked: “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
What will your best response be?