Devastation and Transformation
The world has just witnessed, and many have just experienced, some of the most devastating wildfires of modern times. Hundreds of thousands of people were impacted directly, and millions affected indirectly. In speaking with a close colleague of mine intimately involved with the national recovery effort, he said the greatest impact was on the mental health of people. People were suffering terribly from the devastation.
Natural hazards and their impacts force major transformations, be it physical, mental or spiritual. Landscapes change, economies change, ecologies change. People’s perceptions of their fundamental states of reality alter forever. There is no going back to the way things were, and as much as we may want to, it is simply not possible. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, depending upon your perspective and situation, their impacts also challenge what we had perceived to be true. Truths for example about who we thought we were but no longer are, what we thought we valued but came to realise there were other more important things in life, who we thought we could trust but ultimately couldn’t, and perhaps our capacity for love.
Withdrawal and Discovery
However, to navigate through the complexity of newfound Truth, sometimes we need to withdraw from our environments to reflect and to discover what is genuinely true for us, at least personally, and what may be true for others more broadly. Many of our great historical and enlightened spiritual beings also understood this need, at least in the metaphorical sense. Reaching the boundaries of Truth as they understood it and feeling dissatisfied with that boundary, they each discovered profound Truths about humanity by withdrawing into solitude, deep reflection and profound contemplation. Mohammad went to the Mountain, Christ went to the Desert, and The Buddha went to the Tree. Our indigenous ancestors went ‘walkabout’, connected with the spirits of the land and the sky, and entered the dreamtime. They confronted all the brutal realities of life and managed, within the context of their own traditions, to discover for themselves and for the World, what we needed to know, let go of, and attain. The profundity of their insights still resonates for many people 1,500, 2,000, 2,500 and even 60,000 years later.
Adversity and Identity
Not for a minute am I suggesting that either you or I are in this category. Even the words extreme hubris wouldn’t suffice here. But what I am saying is that as great historical spiritual leaders, they left us with a legacy and an example that said, “look, when times get tough, when truth seems to be in short supply or has reached its limits, when life as you understood it fails you or no longer resembles what you believed to be the source of either your truth or happiness, then stop, reflect and connect to that which inspires you genuinely to benefit yourself AND others”.
All adversity teaches. One of the fundamental tenets of Aristotle’s and The Buddha’s philosophy was that life teaches practical wisdom through lived experiences, and particularly adverse ones. The great German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche said similar things: “that which does not kill you makes you stronger”.
This is not to say that adversity and the resulting harms are okay, deserved, or to be legitimated in some overly rationalistic way. As a philosophical tenet, harming oneself or another sentient being is not acceptable, but due to human fallibility, harm does exist and must be navigated. But leaving this argument aside for now, it is important for us to know and understand that the transformational nature of adversity is a spiritual process of discovery of the true nature of our identities.
Unique and yet, Universal
When reflecting upon all my own experiences with personal adversity I came to understand something which I believe to be fundamental to our human experience.
The specific circumstances in which I found myself were unique to the World in time and space: the World had not previously witnessed nor experienced them. Those same circumstances were unique in my experience: they hadn’t occurred previously in my life. However, paradoxically, the World profoundly understood my experience of the unique circumstances in which the World and I found ourselves.
Our lived experiences of unique and often very private circumstances are genuinely understood by our mythologies, philosophies and theologies as well as our art, music, poetry, theatre and literature. These ‘great bodies of knowledge’ are critical to helping us understand who we really are and what we are capable of as wise and compassionate people.
The circumstances you found yourself in showed you something about yourself that you may not yet be conscious of or comfortable with. That something will inevitably be about your capacity to feel and the ability to think, speak and act with Virtue towards yourself and Others. To feel love. To be compassionate. To show kindness. To be considerate. To be patient. To suspend judgment. To be truthful. To be trusted. To have integrity. And the list goes on.
Holding space for transformation
Such transformations are not easy. They are physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging and confronting and they need kindness, care and understanding. They also need compassion. So, if you know someone going through a transformation, do the best you can to hold space with them and, to the extent to which you are able, offer them any help you can. If you are the one navigating transformation, be kind to yourself. Understand profoundly that many have walked this path before you, that you are genuinely not alone, and that help is never too far away.
Seek the great ‘bodies of knowledge’ that speak to your experience. Learn to trust their insights. Get to know them in a way that eases your anxieties and inspires your journey. Seek those who can speak to them with wisdom. Surrender any notion of fixed ideas or beliefs that no longer serve you well but seek wise insights beyond your own limited beliefs. As time progresses, you will genuinely discover that the original circumstances and the related experience taught you something. Something you needed to know. Something that helped you find your truth. Trust me on this.