We fish for amity but reel in rancor. We set off for Easy Street yet stumble onto a warpath. We struggle to scale some career Everest and get swallowed by an avalanching economy. When we want a nonstop red-eye to the Elysian Fields, the only flights available have got long-ass stopovers in Tartarus.
Adversity, man—it is the primal WTF feature of a fallen cosmos. It comes at us as buzzing mosquitoes, as spine-shredding shrapnel, as gut-wrenching grief. We never, ever desire it.
Buddhists use the word dukkha to describe this bedrock component of human life. The ancient Pali word has been translated most often as “suffering,” but its meaning covers more than the dramatic physical or psychic pain that word suggests. Few concepts are more telling or comprehensive. Dukkha means not getting what we want, or getting what we do not want, or getting what we want and then growing disenchanted with it. It covers everything from bee stings and traffic jams to a loved one being murdered.
We want to reduce our suffering, maximize our happiness and vitality, console and bolster those around us. But this rough beast of dukkha, its hour coming round way too often, slouches toward us and hauls the darkness down again.
So what can we do about this?
First step is to accept that some trouble is unavoidable. There’s so much we can’t control in this world. The compass rose we wander is as thorny with annoyance, heartbreak and horror as it is radiant with wisdom, love and laughter.
That’s the bad news. The sunnier side is that we’ve got a really powerful locus of control, and the more we learn to leverage it, the stronger and more resilient we’ll be.
Albert Ellis, one of the pioneers of cognitive-behavioral psychology, drew on Buddhism and Stoic philosophy to develop his ABCDE system for mapping and transforming our responses to adversity. In this system, A stands for activating event (or adversity). C stands for the consequences—emotional and behavioral—that follow the adversity.
Maybe you’re wondering why I skipped over B. That’s actually what most of us do when we consider the causal dynamics of adversity and suffering. We miss a pivotal factor—one that determines whether adversity lays us low or strengthens our ability to meet challenges.
B stands for belief system—the wellspring of our internal chatter about what each experience means. Many are surprised to learn that the activating event (A) doesn’t directly cause the emotional and behavioral consequences (C). The fallout actually stems from our beliefs about the painful shit we go through.
So, for instance, a guy’s wife decides she wants miles of permanent daylight between the two of them. Oh, man, what a switchblade to the ticker for that poor dude. Within hours he gets so that he could teach a weeping willow how to cry or show the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky.
His mind kicks into catastrophizing mode and starts churning out cognitive toxins: My life is over, I can never be happy without her, I’ll be alone forever. These thoughts and beliefs (B) lead to lamentable consequences (C). He gets draggy, torpid, and stays that way for too long. He’s training for the Olympics of despair.
Ellis zeroed in on the fact that such catastrophizing beliefs are
- Very common reactions to painful events, and
- Dumber than a bag of hammers
He called his intervention Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) to spotlight the connection between illogical thoughts and negative feelings. When depression hits us, half our intelligence takes it on the lam. Even a Fulbright Fellow will find her candlepower dimmed to the point of squinty gloom.
So Ellis targeted this pivotal node where unchallenged mendacity metastasizes into despair. He got his clients to voice their thoughts, to lay out depression’s steaming mental horseshit plain as day. Then they looked at it together, the therapist dragooning back into play his client’s native good sense. This is where the D comes in—disputing the irrational beliefs that distort our reality.
REBT’s descendant, cognitive-behavioral therapy, operates like this today. A CB therapist working with the Dear-Johnned guy might challenge his despair this way: First, what do you mean your life is over? You’re sitting there living and breathing, dude. Grief over the end of your marriage is really not going to kill you, and you know it.
Second, how do you know you can never be happy without her? You’ve had forms of happiness, pleasure and meaning that didn’t come from her, so it stands to reason that eventually you’ll have those all again without her in your life.
Another thing: You’ve got no rational basis to think you’ll always be alone just because your wife left you. What attracted her in the first place will be likely to attract other women in the future, and the stats say that most divorced people end up partnering and marrying again.
Let’s be realistic here. You going to feel sad for a while, even devastated? Yeah, most likely.
But you know enough about the world to acknowledge that even the worst heartbreaks don’t preclude eventual healing. If you broke your leg, would you sit on your ass, resigned to being hobbled by a busted femur the rest of your days? No, you’d find a good sawbones, lug around a cast for a few months, and then you’d be back to stomping around on two healthy stems. The heart and soul ain’t so different from the chassis they animate—they’ve got their own restorative resources, and you have some control over how soon you shed this heft of heartache, how fast you get yourself back to fighting weight.
Will it be easy? Hell no. But you’re equal to it. Now let’s start by calling bullshit on those bamboozling depressive thoughts.
While a good therapist can help you duke it out with your negativity, you can also teach yourself how to do this. Persevere and you’ll get better at it. Ellis said that even in therapy the aim is to develop self-practice. “You don’t have a teacher standing over you saying ‘Keep doing it, keep disputing, there you go again.’ You get the ideal and then you realize that you fall back and then you force yourself up again.”
So next time some large or small adversity hits, try this method. Call time out and scrutinize your reactive thoughts. If you’re working on this alone, try writing down those doom-drenched beliefs. They’re not as easy to eyeball when they’re just a whirligig swarm shadowing your mental sky. You get them on the page or screen, though, and you can begin to parse their jerry-rigged logic.
The method works best when you write down the rational counterarguments as well. Lay something out on paper or screen and you’re inscribing it in your neuronal circuitry as well. This helps you get into the habit of correcting your negativity on the fly.
Starting a meditation practice can also help you deepen awareness of how your mind and your thoughts work. Try sitting still just five or ten minutes a day, and focusing on your breath. Don’t grasp at any thoughts that drift into your head, whether they’re positive, negative or neutral. Observe each cognition and then let it go, and gently bring your attention back to your breath. You’ll see how these mental events are fleeting and not all that important, and how the gloomy ones often go heavy on drama to compensate for their lack of accuracy.
Another boon you’ll notice: When you’re busy scoping out your hijacked thought patterns, you’re no longer so focused on your suffering itself. You’ve shifted from victim to observer with a single step.
Keep at it and you’ll develop an eagle-eyed power to snare and dispute your every bone-headed, self-disparaging thought. That leads you to the global goal of the ABCDE method—E stands for effect, or effective new philosophy, a reconstructed, resilient worldview built on realism. Equanimity is another good word for this goal.
Your new outlook will need maintenance, of course. You’ve got to keep up the cognitive scrutiny and disputation. But the benefits will impress you, and they’ll be self-reinforcing—a mental repertoire that helps you finesse adversity with nimble assurance, and the mettle that comes from knowing you’ll be equal to whatever happens.