Mythologist Michael Meade likes to tell the one about the woman in the cave weaving the world into existence. Each time she gets up to stir the stew she’s got cooking on the fire, her dog pounces on the weaving, unraveling it. When the woman returns to her loom, “she stands meditatively above the chaotic mess and despairs,” says Meade, author of "The World Behind the World." “Then she picks up an end and starts weaving again, this time to create an even more beautiful design.”
It’s a story that speaks of creating and undoing, of hope that comes from despair, of picking up the pieces and carrying on — and it couldn’t be more relevant in our world right now. “We’re living through one of those times when things seem to be dark and unraveling. But from a mythic point of view, we’re in a time of re-creation,” says Meade. “All creation emerges from darkness. The great myths are about getting lost in darkness and then finding the surprising way out.”
For those personally affected by the recent economic upheaval, this prospect of reinvention is often the only thing keeping despair from taking over. But even in flush times, when foreclosures, massive layoffs, and bankruptcies aren’t constantly dominating the news, it’s a pertinent message. Why? Along with its joys and pleasures, life is famously rife with disappointment — and not to mine our low points for insight only holds us back. “If you make meaning out of your suffering,” affirms life coach MJ Ryan, author of "AdaptAbility." “You can turn surviving into thriving.”
The key to spinning gold from straw? Adaptability, not alchemy. Brilliant adaptors have an innate ability to shake off adversity with a “that was that, now what?” attitude, according to Ryan. With unasked-for change, “there’s always a death involved — the death of a dream, a belief, or an idea of how we thought it was going to be,” she says. Successfully adapting to adversity means moving, when the time is right, from mourning and regretting to focusing on the options and opportunities opening up before us.
Hard times also offer a priceless reminder of the most fundamental truth about happiness: It comes from inside, rather than out. “Our lasting happiness can and needs to be independent of our circumstances,” says inspirational speaker Marci Shimoff, author of "Happy for No Reason." It’s not some spike of emotions or a temporary kind of pleasure that comes when everything is finally perfect and we have all we’ve ever wanted. “It’s an inner state of peace and well-being that you carry with you wherever you go.” Sometimes, it takes a setback to realize this distinction, and to start developing happiness as a skill and an attitude, rather than a goal.
Change is good, the saying goes. But as for the change that knocks us down and beats us up, it’s possible to find some good even there — though it may take some time, dedication, and creativity. “The soul awakens as things seem to fall apart,” says Meade. In other words, we don’t ask for crisis, but we can take advantage of it when it arises, and find the surprising way out of the dark.
7 ways to rebound from a setback
Facing fear and anxiety head-on is the first step in handling a setback. Try to distinguish productive worries (which spark action) from destructive ones (which trigger catastrophic thinking.) Challenge negative worries with knowledge and perspective (write your arguments in a journal) and this will allow you to realize that you’ll get through whatever comes your way.
When bad news hits, our first response is to tighten up. Learning to stay expanded rather that contracted, in mind and body, allows us to better accept what’s unfolding and transform paralysis into productive action. First, focus on the body. Change your posture to make it more open or take a wide stance with your arms stretched out from your sides, so you’re as large and open as possible, and stay there for five deep breaths. The open position of your body can make you feel expanded inside, lifting your mood.
Next, expand your thinking to see all the options. List a few different responses to your misfortune, cross out the unacceptable ones, and focus on the positive, feasible ones. And remember to count your blessings. They will open your mind to abundance rather than scarcity and bring you happiness.
Look for the lesson
Find something meaningful or useful in a bad situation that you likely wouldn’t have realized any other way. Ask yourself, “What did I learn?” and “How am I stronger now?”
Dwelling endlessly in resentment creates emotional turmoil, and lab studies show that anger triggers our fight-or-flight response, which can reduce our brain’s ability to think clearly and creatively so we can find solutions. The best way to break that cycle is through meditation. Dropping thoughts for a brief period of time provides the mental rest we need. Meditating can be as easy as closing your eyes for five minutes andfocusing on the tip of your nose as you slowly inhale and exhale, or eating a piece of fruit as slowly as you can and savoring the sensation, smell, and texture.
Take advantage of downtime
When downtime unexpectedly comes along (from a job loss or the ending of a relationship for example), use it to do those things you’ve been meaning to do for years. Write that novel, learn to knit, paint your bedroom, or visit tourist attractions in your area you’ve never seen.
Tap your resources
While meditation and action develop your inner resources, friends are your “outer resources.” A strong network of friends acts as a crucial stress buster, helping us to process our emotions, get perspective, and have fun. So ignore the urge to spend too much time alone and let your friends know what they can do to help.
Help someone else
Sometimes it’s supporting others that can best pull you out of despair. Use a crisis to redefine your priorities and redefine your life. Putting your energy into action to help others can open a whole new door of opportunities and joy, bringing new meaning to your life.