How to cope with a sometimes cruel world

Sep 24, 2014 by

By Kevin Donnelly –

Losing a much-loved child needlessly is a life-changing event that can lead to depression, sorrow and a deep sense of loss. Here, Kevin Donnelly writes about how literature and religion helped him to be more resilient.

Literature provides a rich and enduring source of understanding that helps people to deal with tragic and unexpected fate. Greek tragedies like Oedipus The King and Medea prepare one to understand that the gods are not always just, and that to be human is to be vulnerable.

Shakespeare’s plays like King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth also teach us how we cannot escape destiny and that our thoughts and actions, no matter how much we might believe they are justified, can have destructive, far-reaching consequences.

Lines like “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will” and “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport” emphasise that life can be cruel and unpredictable.

At the same time, literature can enthuse about the potential to live life to the full, to gain from the experience and find a deeper sense of satisfaction and contentment. While now politically incorrect, larger than life and effusive characters like Zorba from Zorba The Greek display an infectious zest for living based on music, dance and physical appetites.

In David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter, the end of the novella suggests that there is a continuity and purpose in life that transcends the pain and loss caused by death. For most of the time, we skate across the surface of things, but literature often enables us to discover a more complex, profound and transcendent sense of existence.

Music, sculpture, dance and art can also transport one to a sublime and moving world that refreshes one’s perception of life and that helps one address ever-present, existential questions about life and death, happiness and despondency, and the best way to live one’s life and find fulfilment.

As I was raised as a Catholic, religious faith also provides a strong counterweight to depression and despair. Original sin and Christ’s suffering on the cross point to the belief that this life, in many ways, is “a vale of tears”. At the same time, Christ’s resurrection and God’s unconditional love tells us that there is a spiritual world offering solace and “the peace that passeth all understanding”.

The words of the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich – “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” – also point to the belief that we are not forsaken. TS Eliot makes use of these lines in Little Gidding V when he writes:

And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

While there are many sceptics in what is becoming an increasingly secular world, the reality is that Christianity is not alone in arguing that there is a higher purpose in life. Buddhism and Hinduism, for example, tell us that this life is a “veil of illusion” and their teachings provide a path to a deeper awareness and sense of truth.

The Zen saying “chop wood, carry water”, as well as suggesting the need for mindfulness and living in the moment as fully as possible, also suggests that it is important to appreciate the value of what might appear to be menial tasks and the way physical activity can refresh the spirit.

Sometimes, instead of dwelling on self-pity, it is better to throw yourself into something active and to live in the moment, enjoying the satisfaction that comes from mastering something difficult or the simple pleasure of being exhausted.

The love, compassion and understanding of family and friends are also vital in buoying one and proving that all is not lost. For me, a wife and daughter not only provide a reason to overcome adversity but, more importantly, their sympathy, affection and warmth provide a beacon of happiness and hope.

For men in particular, it is also vital to be true to one’s emotions and feelings, and to be open and not afraid to reveal weakness – especially to other men. The danger with conforming to the male stereotype of always being in control and appearing brave is that the façade belies underlying doubts and fears.

If not expressed or dealt with, such feelings of despondency and emptiness can be destructive and life threatening. Men must also guard against reacting violently against those who are closest in a futile attempt to assuage their suffering and grief.

This is an edited extract from the book Taming the Black Dog.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the ACU and director of Education Standards Institute. He is also co-chairing the review of the Australian national curriculum. View his full profile here.

via How to cope with a sometimes cruel world – The Drum (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

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