Tao of the Zentropist

March 27, 2009

When Faced with Adversity… “Keep Going”

We are living in tumultuous times these days, and many people who have formerly known at least relative comfort and prosperity are having their fundamental assumptions challenged due to job loss (or the impending threat of this happening), rising costs and all too often declining earnings, the devastation of the financial system, etc. While it’s true that most of us are pretty fortunate when compared to those truly suffering, or when contrasted with prior generations, this can be cold comfort when a crisis hits home and the world suddenly feels like it’s caving in.

No matter who we are, no matter how great or small our real or perceived accomplishments, we all face adversity at some point in our lives. This may take many forms, and it may come in cycles, and it may even be highly relative (i.e. one person’s adversity is another’s opportunity), but ultimately, it is part of the Yin and Yang that underlies life.

There is a wonderful Lakota writer (whose blurb bills him as an “historian, educator, motivational speaker and Lakota craftsman,” to which I would add “philosopher”) named Joseph Marshall III whose work I believe deserves to be widely known. While his fiction and non-fiction books are firmly rooted in the oral storytelling traditions and values of his own culture, the messages are universal and eternal, and are further evidence of the common threads underlying many philosophical and wisdom traditions in both the East and West.

In 2006 Mr. Marshall published a slim volume (just 125 pages, but its impact far belies the efficiency of the message) entitled “Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance” which is one of the books that I keep close at hand for inspiration and comfort. The book contains a brief prose statement of a grandfather speaking to his grandson as they sit beneath a cottonwood tree to mourn the premature death of the boy’s father. As the boy struggles to understand why life can seem so capricious and difficult at times, the grandfather gently explains the meaning behind his words, and provides the comfort that age and experience, translated into wisdom, can provide when we are receptive to hearing it.

I would like to quote a brief excerpt from the preface, in which Grandfather addresses his grandson, which also serves as a bookend to tie the lesson together:

“…You did not ask to be born, but you are here. You have weakness as well as strengths. You have both because in life there is two of everything. Within you is the will to win, as well as the willingness to lose. Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant. Within you is the way to face life as well as the fear to turn away from it.”

If you ask me, this is a rather powerful and concise summation of the human condition. I cannot do justice to Mr. Marshall’s own interpretation of this work, but will simply offer a few of my own observations on the passage above.

“You have weakness as well as strengths.” As self-evident as this may seem, I have learned from years of dedicated martial arts practice that within weakness lies a potential source of strength, and within strength lays exploitable weakness. For example, in Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu, we are taught not to oppose strength with strength, even if we are physically stronger than the opponent, but rather, to release or re-direct that force so that the opponent’s energy is used against him or her. Do we not often see how strength can breed arrogance or over-confidence, otherwise known as “hubris,” and that this has often led to the downfall of those exhibiting it?

“You have both because in life there is two of everything.” Is this not yet another acknowledgement of the concept of Yin and Yang, of equal and opposing dynamic forces that contain traces of each other and cannot exist independently of each other?

“Within you is the will to win, as well as the willingness to lose.” Quite frankly, this is deserving of a posting on its own. Suffice it to say for now, the implication is that winning and losing are choices that we make, consciously or not, and that while the path to victory may be convoluted and torturous, it is incumbent for us to realize that no matter how dire the circumstances, we can still pull through.

“Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant” How easy it is, especially when operating from a position of power, to feel arrogant or otherwise entitled to our current lofty status, whether it was well and truly “earned” through hard work and perseverance, or simply handed to us by another. It is in these times especially that we should feel compassion and count our good fortune and do what we can to inspire, encourage and help others, for one day our positions might be reversed, and we will be grateful to receive the compassion of another.

“Within you is the way to face life as well as the fear to turn away from it.” As the Latin says, res ipsa loquitur. It speaks for itself.

Whenever the night seems darkest, the dawn is about to break. Whenever you feel that you lack the strength to take another step forward, place one foot in front of the other and take that step. Keep in mind that, “This too shall pass” and that, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Above all, just keep going…

P.S. I received an e-mail from Mr. Marshall informing me that a short video for “Keep Going” was recently posted to YouTube. Please check it out!

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