A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Mental Endurance: Our Salvation or Destruction?

The human ability to endure suffering both amazes and concerns me.

It amazes me each time I hear about someone who has coped with severe suffering in his or her life. Whether a person has endured child abuse, a near-fatal accident, a devastating loss, or anything else that wreaked havoc on his or her life, the mere fact that people do (sometimes) survive tragedy and go on with their lives inspires me with awe at the power of humans’ mental survival skills.

Yet these same survival skills sometimes turn into problems of their own. As an extreme example, Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) is said to result from a child’s extreme mental distancing of himself/herself from ongoing trauma. What more of us can relate to is finding that coping mechanisms we developed earlier in our lives persist, to our detriment, when the problem we had been coping with no longer exists, leaving us with seemingly irrational hangups (which is one reason therapy can be so helpful).

This is a tricky thing. In some ways, mental endurance through troubled times is a tremendous gift that, as far as I know, is celebrated and encouraged in every culture, from Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths to Christianity’s Beatitudes. (In fact, religion itself can be thought of as a culture’s shared coping mechanism with the unpredictability of life). Literature, too, offers its toasts to inner fortitude, as when Emily Dickinson declares,
No Rack can torture me

My Soul—at Liberty—
Behind this mortal Bone
There knits a bolder One—

You cannot prick with saw—
Nor pierce with Scimitar—
Two Bodies—therefore be—
Bind One—The Other fly—”

But on the other hand, not all pain can be eased by mental gymnastics, and the uniqueness of each individual’s experience makes other people’s injunctions to “think your way out of it” (or “You’ve got to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “Every trial is a blessing in disguise.” “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” And so on…) often more hurtful than helpful. (Barbara Ehrenreich admirably addresses this problem in her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.”) And further, as I said before, sometimes our mental gymnastics work too well.

This double-sided skill figures prominently in my own life. I’ve always had an extra-high amount of self-motivation. In the words of my TV hero Monk, “It’s a gift—and a curse.” It’s a gift when I can accomplish big things and when I can happily entertain myself anytime, anywhere, with nothing but my brain. (How, you ask? Well…how long do you have? I make up stories and poems, think, remember, daydream, plan, recite things I’ve memorized, etc…) But it’s a curse, too, because I tend to motivate myself to keep going long past the time when I should quit and rest, whether we’re talking about a single project or a period of time when my chronic illness has flared up but I’m just ignoring it instead of taking care of myself–and I end up causing more harm to my body. I’m beginning to learn how to keep a close watch on this tendency of mine, but I will always have to stay on guard.

So, I think the human skill of mental endurance is like a sharp sword we are given, and when we’re trying to survive in the jungle out there, it can save us—and it can hurt us.



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