Lately, have you been thinking that the world is spinning out of control? Are recent events in the news making you feel angry, frustrated, anxious or afraid? Consider the following affirmation recommended by psychotherapist Kevin Anderson:
“i am depressed,
but I am not.”
This simple declaration reveals a profound spiritual truth. It is the key to resilience in the face of worldly trauma and chaos, as well as an effective strategy for dealing with all the stresses of daily life.
Two of You
Anderson practices a holistic kind of psychotherapy that treats the whole person (“Spirituality, Mental Health, and Therapy: The Mind-Body-Spirit Connection,” July 2019). The first “I” in his affirmation refers to the “small self.” Other spiritual teachers have called this the ego (Wayne Dyer) or the personality (Gary Zukav). The small self is concerned with image, status, and security in the physical world. It has trouble coping with any kind of change.
The second “I” refers to the spirit or “larger self.” Dyer calls this the “sacred self” (Your Sacred Self, 1995), and Zukav calls it the “soul” (The Seat of the Soul, 1989). The larger self is part of the metaphysical world — that which is universal and eternal. It knows that change is constant in the physical world, that all things come and go, but the human spirit endures.
To better weather the chaos of the world, these enlightened teachers advise us to develop a more spiritual approach to life. This involves turning away from the needs of the small self and turning toward the larger self, which, says Anderson, aligns us with “the highest possible energies (or, if you prefer, God).” We can tap into this energy to find the inspiration and courage we need to navigate the many challenges of the physical world.
Recently Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of South Africa, suggested that we think of the coronavirus pandemic as a reminder of these two selves. Our small physical selves are vulnerable to illness and death. At the same time, we are also graced with a larger self which reflects a majesty, brilliance and tenacity that far exceeds the physical body.
This is the human condition. “Our lives sit at the awkward seam of apparent contradictions: we are physical but also spiritual; we have bodies but also souls; we are essentially frail but also strong; our bodies are mortal but our souls are immortal” (“Coronavirus has a Spiritual Effect,” March 23, 2020).
Rabbi Goldstein invites us to embrace the pandemic and its aftermath as “an opportunity to embark on a journey of spiritual growth, of recommitting ourselves to treating everyone with equality and dignity; of celebrating the greatness, creativity and tenacity of the human spirit; of humbly accepting our vulnerability and connecting with God who made us in His image, and endowed us with not only the strength to persevere but also with the spirit to thrive.”
Growth Through Adversity
When we take up the challenge to live from our higher selves, we automatically become more resilient. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), resilience is the ability to adapt to change, stress, adversity, and crisis. It is also the ability to use adverse experiences in the service of self-discovery and self-knowledge (“Building Your Resilience,” apa.org/topics/resilience). Through adversity, resilient people become kinder, wiser, more compassionate and more forgiving of themselves and others.
Fortunately, all of us can learn to become more resilient. However, “like building a muscle, increasing your resilience takes time and intentionality” (APA). This is why psychologist Harold Cohen prefers to say “resilience abilities,” suggesting a set of coping skills that can be learned and practiced, rather than “resilience,” which suggests an inherent characteristic or personality trait (“What is Resilience?” PsychCentral, October 2018).
Inspiration from Others
One way to make abstract concepts (like the small self, the larger self and resilience) more relatable is to see how they play out in real people’s lives. Lately, I have been reading memoirs from Holocaust survivors. I find them inspiring, and they give me hope during these troubled times.
In The Choice, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a Hungarian Jew now in her 90’s, describes in wrenching detail how she and others survived the trauma they endured in the Holocaust.
Although Eger did not identify as religious or spiritual, she intuitively tapped into her larger self, which she calls “inner strength.” Eger now teaches other trauma victims to find that inner strength and become more resilient. She serves as a consultant for the U.S. Army and Navy in resilience training and the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the book, Eger describes her life before, during and after being imprisoned at the age of 16. She lost both of her parents and her grandparents to the Holocaust, as well as many other family members and the young man she planned to marry. She and her older sister survived two concentration camps (Auschwitz and Mauthausen) and a death march. At the time of her liberation, Eger was suffering from starvation, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, a broken back, and other illnesses. She suffered from depression, anxiety and survival guilt for many years afterward.
When WWII ended, Eger married and had a child, emigrated to the United States, and in midlife earned a PhD in clinical psychology. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, the widely acclaimed Holocaust memoir published in 1946, became her friend and mentor. Together, they tried to make sense of their experiences and use them to heal others.
Eger calls the kind of cognitive therapy she practices “choice therapy.” “The choice” in her title refers to the decision to live in the past or the present. It is the decision to pay attention to what we have lost or to focus on what we still have. It is the choice to let bitterness, hostility and resentment take over or to hold on to the part of us that is innocent, compassionate, optimistic, and loving.
As Eger sees it, “suffering is universal, but victimhood is optional. . . . No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization.”
Victor Frankl came to a similar conclusion. He believed that “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Both are referring to the choice between the small self and the larger self. I think their approach – to choose “I” over “i” – is the only way to respond to a world in crisis without becoming part of the problem.
As it turns out, there are strategies for practicing this approach that are based on time-tested spiritual traditions from the East and West. In a recent article (“The Coronavirus and the Need for Spiritual Well-Being,” April 3, 2020), Deepak Chopra suggests the following ways to tap into the energy of the soul:
1. Love and be loved.
2. Create a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.
3. Develop good self-esteem based on a sense of your inherent value.
4. Find inner peace and joy through meditation, prayer, and deep reflection.
5. Develop generosity of spirit by giving unconditionally.
6. Be of service to others.
If we make the effort to structure our lives around these strategies, we will become more loving, resilient people who can withstand any crisis and learn from it.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.