It takes no great leap of the imagination to say that we are living in tough times. As a priest, professor, and psychologist, I see struggling parishioners, students, and clients who, even a year ago, would not have imagined that they would be where they are today. Many are unemployed and are facing the prospect of continued unemployment for some time to come. Others are struggling with the impact of an economic downturn that places too much stress on an already strained family budget. Still others are dealing with the end of life, the end of a relationship, disruptions in the neighborhood or community, or other forms of what can only be described as the difficulties of life. Ironically, the holidays tend to be particularly tough on people. Yet when I ask for hard-earned wisdom to help others, everyone perks up with gifts to share.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common “tool for tough times” is a personal version of the phrase, “I count my blessings” or “I shift into gratitude.” The great spiritual traditions all teach the value of gratitude. Of all the contributions I received concerning gratitude, philosopher Charles Eisenstein’s is the most fundamental:
1. Our default state is gratitude.
We are born helpless infants, creatures of pure need with little resource to give, yet we are fed, we are protected, we are clothed and held and soothed, without having done anything to deserve it, without offering anything in exchange. This experience, common to everyone who has made it past childhood, informs our deepest spiritual intuitions. Our default state is gratitude: it is the truth of our existence. — Charles Eisenstein
2. I get out and reach out.
Ninety percent of life is showing up. Exercising at the gym, learning something unexpected at a meeting, and meeting a significant person all require that I first show up.
— Ron Hutcherson
3. As much as I used to fear change, I now fear not changing even more.
What I’d call my turning point was when I decided to face my single greatest challenge, whatever the cost. It changed my entire life to one of new and focused learning. I’ve found that risks become less threatening if I maintain a smile, openness, and caring for people around me. I think this is because the risks are never as significant as the rewards when pursuing a positive goal, and if you help others along the way, they seem to want to help you overcome your troubles. So, I guess my formula is this: ask little, give a lot, get even more. — Steven Ley
4. I look for the perfect time to “come about.”
For sailing ships, the worst possible situation is no wind at all, and the best situation is the wind at your back. But the most common situation is a headwind from varying angles. Sailors can reach their destination in a headwind by “tacking” into the wind; setting their sails so they can move forward — but not directly — toward their destination in zigzag fashion. Progress can be slow, but it is steady, and the best sailors are those who know how to make the best forward progress against resistance and who know exactly when to “come about,” or make a turn and reset the sails. Life is like that, too. — John Collins
5. I have an advisory board.
I get through times of transition with less suffering by having a volunteer advisory board. For me, it’s three different people: I have a taskmaster, a cheerleader, and an encourager. When others create this kind of support, I tell them not to choose someone who is emotionally or financially tied to their success. The taskmaster helps me be accountable to my plan of action. She doesn’t shame me if I get off track but says, instead, “What got in the way, and how can I support you next time around?” I call my cheerleader when I forget my greatness. She says things like, “I can’t wait for that company to discover how great you are. They’d be darn lucky to have you. Go! Go! Go!” The encourager allows me to strategically retreat and hide under my bed, then gently pulls me out, dusts me off, gives me a hug, and tells me to get back in the game. — Shary Raske
6. When I am going through hell, I just keep going.
I hold tight to Churchill’s quote, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” It helps me focus. First, I pray for help in picking a direction out of my morass. Then my mantra becomes “Just put one foot in front of another.” The first steps are always the hardest and heavy with doubt, but I’ve learned to have faith in the process. — Elizabeth Caspari
7. I look to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.
When our first child was diagnosed as “mentally retarded” in 1973, I felt crushed. I had never even seen a person with that diagnosis. My father helped give me courage and determination by citing a comment by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “It is circumstances which show what men are.” In effect, he pointed out that it is my choice to remain devastated or to rise above the difficulty. This first son and our second are gems and have brought my wife and me great joy for these many years.
My wife is heroic and, together, we have had a wonderful life with our children. — Van Brokaw
8. I think of myself less. Having experienced years of low self-esteem but also being afraid of thinking too highly of myself, I finally was taught this excellent definition of humility: It is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. — Diane K.
9. I learned to collaborate.
After years of depending on others to help me figure out how to live my best life, I realized that I had a tremendous power within to guide me. Now I collaborate with others to help me along the way, but I understand how important it is to take control of my own destiny and do what is necessary to fulfill it. — Caren Libby
10. I’ve learned to ask, “What if I were fearless?”
What would happen if I didn’t put off that dreaded phone call, or if I lived with the belief that everything is connected, or faced the realization that there is a reason I repeat my mistakes? — Dianne Willis
11. I hear to the words of my grandfather.
My grandfather used to recite a line to me in German. “The lazy ass breaks its back with work.” I often don’t think of it until I’ve made a mess for myself by trying to take shortcuts. It’s reminds me that the job goes better when I take the time to plan my approach or to break up the job into several achievable units, rather than trying to carry the whole load at once. Spiritually, it’s a reminder to pray and center myself regularly and frequently, rather than letting myself get overloaded with secular cares until I am desperately distracted from the way, the truth, and the life. — Thom Gross
12. I look for someone to help.
When times are tough (as they have been for a while now), what keeps me going is knowing that just maybe, one day, I can help someone else. Sometime in the future I’ll have valuable knowledge, not from reading a book but based on real experiences. I thank God for giving me the strength to think of that unknown person that I will help someday. — Lynda Blake
13. I focus on what I have.
While dealing with a major illness a few years ago, I could drive myself to the treatments and walk in the door by myself, and I had a family who supported me unconditionally. Every time I went to the clinic, I’d meet someone who had an illness other than the one for which he or she was being treated; who could not drive, could not walk, could not have surgery; or who had to be on oxygen to breathe. I think it was God’s way of reminding me how blessed I was. — Pattie Layman
14. I say my mantra, “Om mani padme hum.” I learned it from my late father, who learned it in the Peace Corps. It contains the essence of the entire teaching of Buddhism. When you say the first syllable, “Om,” it is blessed to help you achieve perfection in the practice of generosity. “Ma” helps perfect the practice of pure ethics, and “ni” helps achieve perfection in the practice of tolerance and patience. “Pad,” the fourth syllable, helps to achieve perfection of perseverance, “me” helps achieve perfection in the practice of concentration, and the final syllable, “hum,” helps achieve perfection in the practice of wisdom. In this way, the recitation of the mantra helps achieve perfection in the six practices, from generosity to wisdom. While I certainly am not perfect nor a Buddhist, I have found that this mantra has always allowed me to find peace. — Carrie Koprowski Rasmussen
15. I stay humble.
Both my parents grew up in poverty in the Kurdish region of Turkey. They realized the types of hardships that people have to face on a daily basis, and they instilled in all three of their kids the ability to practice humility, no matter where we may be in life. My siblings and I look for similarities in the people with whom we interact, as opposed to putting emphasis on our differences. — Sibel Törün
16. I find power in numbers.
As I look for my next career opportunity, I have made it a goal to meet others who are in the same situation. There is power in numbers. We are all in the same boat — one that we hope will dock for each of us soon. — Annette McKee
17. I change the station.
You might call my XM Radio subscription a luxury; I call it a necessity. When I need to refresh, I turn on the radio and sing along to the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s channels — and I often don’t care if others in traffic are watching. Another mood needed: I’ll find a smile at one of the comedy channels. — Dave Blankenship
I have received many other tools worth sharing as well. Each is a poignant reminder that alongside the many great teachers, guides, and experts we encounter in our lives, there are also the people we meet day to day — and with whom we often live and work — who are the possessors of the greatest of life’s wisdom. We honor them most when we listen to them, and we help one another best when we pass on our own tools for tough times.
Steve Lawler is an Episcopal priest, professor, and psychologist in St. Louis, Missouri. His previous collection of shared wisdom is “Generous Wisdom: Fifty-one Things You Wish Your Grandmother Had Told You.” (Summer 2003, SpiritualityHealth.com)