There is a Japanese maxim — “Seven Times Down, Eight Times Up.”
Many years ago, I wrote a story by the same name about a woman who had been working all day on a paper for graduate school when her computer crashed and all her work disappeared (before autosave). She hadn’t saved the paper or printed it out, so all her work simply dissolved. Now what? In order to pass her course, and eventually graduate, she had to sit down and begin rewriting the paper.
Regardless of the type of endeavor – graduate school, writing a novel, starting a new business – it is not likely to go smoothly. This is the rule rather than the exception. It’s nothing personal. No matter how intelligent we are or how well we have planned, we will eventually encounter a challenge that knocks us down. If we can summon up the strength to get up and persevere, we will probably get knocked down again.
Should our goal be to avoid falling down?
No. Our goal should be to learn to fall and get up quickly. Falling is often one of the first lessons of martial arts and getting up is a skill, even an art. My family once saw a very talented circus performer named Gregory Popovich. He had incredible balance and dexterity and was an outstanding juggler. He was performing a juggling act that involved progressively juggling more and more balls (which were thrown higher and higher) and then ending the routine by perfectly catching them all.
As he performed, one of the balls dropped. He picked it up, without missing a beat, and started again. Again, he dropped a ball. He made a silly face, causing the audience to laugh, and moved right into another attempt at the routine. This time he succeeded. Though you could not help but be impressed by his juggling, I was really more impressed by how he handled the dropped balls.
In a crisis, part of the falling/recovering process is continuing to engage in constructive activity even while our thoughts and feelings are in emotional turmoil. First, we do the best we can to keep our foundation of daily activity healthy. We make our bed, shower and put on clean clothes, wash dishes and tend to those elements of life (children, gardens, pets) which need our support and attention.
Second, we take constructive steps, where possible, towards resolving or responding to the crisis situation. This may involve making an appointment to get a second opinion about our diagnosis or finding temporary living space for our family when our house has burned down. This involves the skill of coexisting with our feelings (discussed at greater length in my book, A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness).
Ironically, many of us are more skillful when we are in the midst of a true crisis than a pseudocrisis. It’s almost as if the urgency and importance of the situation demands that we rise to the occasion. By grounding ourselves in purposeful activity, we not only accomplish something useful, but we provide opportunities for our attention to become absorbed in the present moment of activity rather than ruminating and daydreaming about our predicament and suffering.
The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has a book with a wonderful title: Start Where You Are. So wherever you are right now regarding hopes, dreams, goals, aspirations . . . this is where you have to start from. And then tomorrow, or the next moment, you just start again — from where you are. You’re always just starting from where you are.
This may seem somewhat gloomy, like you never make progress and are always starting at the beginning. But we can also see this as a framework for getting a fresh start. No matter how much you messed up, no matter how unfair a blow you received from life, you can always just start fresh.
You get up and brush yourself off. Look around. And do the next thing.
You feel defeated and in despair. Your thoughts are telling you to “stay on the ground, it’s easier.” But your body, your arms and legs, are raising you up. This is the art of rising up.
There’s a song in the play Hamilton called My Shot. It’s a wonderful song and I found it very inspiring. One of lyrics says,
When you’re living on your knees, you
It implies that when you are down, you need to rise up. Whether it’s political or personal, it can be a revolutionary act. It can change your life.
Fall down as often as is necessary. But don’t be content staying on the ground. Rise up.