RETREATS OF SOLITUDE Momentary escapes to rejuvenate the soul BY: Troy Murphy | May 2016
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We struggle to exist—mentally and physically. We experience joy and pleasure amidst the struggles. Or for the positive thinker, we experience struggles amidst the joys and pleasures. Although struggle is inherent (this world isn’t devoted to creating lives of ease), we still feel disappointed and discouraged when difficulties befall us. Our reaction screams, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
The gurus of positivity remind that struggles promote growth—I agree (some of the time). Some theories suggest warmly welcoming difficulties, grateful for their blessings—I disagree (most of the time). As if this attitude change to pain magically transforms the struggles into blessings. Does an abusive marriage increase wisdom more than loving intimacy? Does unemployment trump a promotion? Does losing a child, suffering from addiction, or being struck down with a deadly disease make me wise? Perhaps, sometimes. But this sometimes needs to be marked with a bright asterisk. Struggles must be balanced with enjoyments, too much hurt overwhelms and depresses the soul; wisdom is not garnered from depression and overwhelm. Helplessness is born here. Some events devastate. Along with struggles, we also need joys, happiness and security. What benefit is knowledge of pain without accompanying growth and joy?
Difficulties evoke discomfort, awakening feeling, intruding on mental energies, and limit more creative endeavors. The wisdom gained from pain has well-being costs—there’s a trade-off. We don’t function efficiently under severe stress, making shoddy decisions that we typically could avoid in a better state of mind. The body responds to trouble with a biological process, releasing chemicals that motivate action; experienced as emotional upheaval. Troubles trigger an emotional alarm. When we recognize meaning behind a trial, the purpose for suffering mitigates the annoyance and strengthens our resolve. But some traumatic events lack clear meaning. We can manufacture meaning like many do, “There is a purpose for everything,” they proclaim. If this soothes your system, please entertain these meaning-oriented thoughts, make it through the trouble and then regroup.
We legitimately feel sorrow, sadness, guilt, or anger in response to experience. Feeling is not a crime. Difficult emotions have evolutionary purpose. We need them. We shouldn’t despise discomfort as the enemy. The feelings, especially when sharp, demand attention to examine the self and the world for causes. Sometimes thoughts, faulty conclusions, or unreasonable fears are to blame; other times, danger, loss, or unfairness.
We have limitations. We can’t always work through difficulties without help. No natural law or divine force shields us from too much stress. Our systems can be overwhelmed with grief, sorrow, or anger. Because of insufficient preparations, poor choices or simply bad luck, we may face stresses that outmatch our ability to process. Personal resources vary. When forcefully invited to battle vexing pain, beyond our capabilities, our system deregulates and malfunctions. No wisdom is gained here. When biological signals flare beyond functional levels, we panic, responses become chaotic and unhelpful. Thoughts and actions no longer directed towards future goals; we simply want to survive. Under intense conditions, we become susceptible to helplessness, anxiety, depression, and physical ailments.
Knowing personal limits assists; we can monitor incoming stresses and pull back before the final collapse. Navigating difficult waters requires more than full-steam ahead. We occasionally encounter more than we can effectively process—no matter how well prepared. This doesn’t signal weakness. It’s the price of living. The wise person doesn’t surmount every challenge; they effectively manage within their realm of power. They prepare, plan and avoid unnecessary challenges. Yet, even then, sometimes life overwhelms, delivering stress even the best planning couldn’t predict. For those challenges that exceed abilities, we need patience and escape.
"When forcefully invited to battle vexing pain, beyond our capabilities, our system deregulates and malfunctions. No wisdom is gained here."
Healthy distractions provide momentary relief, focusing attention away from the pain. We need breaks from insurmountable problems; an escape from the drudgery of a problem that refuses to be resolved. We need hobbies and activities that give pleasure. Engaging in activities that demand attention stimulates pleasure, recharges energy and develops self-discipline. Hobbies strengthen our psyche to re-engage in life.
Not every distraction has equal value—distraction alone is not the solution. If any distraction worked, a nightly trip to the bar or a glass of wine would do. Some escapes contribute to better living, while other escapes compound problems. When we engage in activities that improve living skills, we improve our lives. Healthy distractions--exercising, reading, or meditation—serve a dual purpose.
The torments lose their sting and we recover with momentarily escapes. The solitude from the change of focus recharges vital energy and reestablishes equilibrium, taming discomforting emotions so we can respond to the troubling event more effectively. Small escapes provide tremendous mental health benefits. With growth, energy and experience, we can eventually surmount the challenges that were once overwhelming; or sometimes just live more peacefully with them. New successes lead to confidence, and confidence to further growth. Small changes have enormous effects.