In the world of humanity, a person who is talking, walking, and working can be alive and self-creating or lifeless and drab. This is something we all know, yet never talk about. What makes some people seem especially alive and others seem lifeless and drab? Look to nature for answers.
One example is the emperor moth, which, with its wide wingspan, is the most grandiose of all the moths. Its wide wings span out majestically when it flies. Before it can become a full-grown moth, it has to be a pupa in a cocoon. If you find a cocoon of an emperor moth, take it home so that you can watch the moth come out of the cocoon. One day you’ll notice a small opening, and then you’ll see the moth struggle to force its body through that little hole. The struggle will take hours, and the moth will appear at times to be stuck. If you try to help the moth by enlarging the hole with a knife or scissors, the moth will emerge easily. But it will have a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. In fact, the little moth will spend the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It will never fly.
The restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the moth to get through the tiny opening is the way it forces fluid from its body and into its wings, so that it will be ready for flight once it frees itself from the cocoon. If the moth is deprived of its struggle, it is also deprived of its health. Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in order to become truly alive.
When I think of people who are alive and joyful, I think of Richard Cohen. You may not know Richard Cohen. He is the author of Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness. He lives a life defined by illness. He has multiple sclerosis, is legally blind, has almost no voice, and suffers chronic pain, which makes sleeping difficult and leaves him constantly exhausted. Two bouts of colon cancer in the past five years have left him with impaired intestines. And though he is currently cancer-free, he lives with constant discomfort.
Cohen worked as a producer for CBS until he was physically unable to continue. Because his chronic illness and physical disability precluded him from engaging in many activities, it initially left him feeling worthless. Friends and relatives encouraged him to seek professional help from a psychologist, but he refused. He felt psychologists always focus on what’s wrong with you and explain why you feel worthless. Like the emperor moth, Richard decided to use his struggles to become truly alive.
Cohen recognized the inevitable consequences of his illness, but he also recognized that he and he alone controlled his destiny. Cohen says, “The one thing that’s always in my control is what is going on in my head. The first thing I did was to think about who I am and how I could prevail. By choosing my feelings on a conscious level, I am able to control my mood swings and feel good about myself most of the time.” He cultivates a positive attitude toward life by interpreting all of his experiences in a positive way.
He said his life is like standing on a rolling ship. You’re going to slip. You’re going to grab on to things. You’re going to fall. And it’s a constant challenge to get up and push and push yourself to keep going. But in the end, he says, the most exhilarating feeling in the world is getting up and moving forward with a smile. Richard Cohen is the subject of his life and controls his own destiny.
People who live as subjects are wonderfully alive and creative. Once, on a rainy Sunday afternoon in a crowded cafe in Old Montreal, I saw a woman rise from her table and, for no reason, start to sing. She had a certain smile, and she was perfectly at home with herself. She was wearing a wide, white hat, and her arms were flung out in an expansive gesture as she sang operatic arias. Oblivious to her environment, she sang like a bird sings after a storm has passed.
It was a moment when time stood still. Even as you read this, you may be thinking of people you know who are alive, and people who are lifeless. This woman was wonderfully alive and self-creating. When you meet people like Richard Cohen or the woman in Montreal, you may get a vague feeling that you “ought to be” something more. You already know this feeling. We get this feeling when we recognize the thing in others that we long to be. We long to become more alive and creative in our personal and business lives. This is the most primitive feeling a person can have.
It is not easy to put this feeling into words. The person who believes she is the subject of her life is frank, open-minded, and sincerely going ahead, facing situations freely and looking forward to each day with a smile. The person who believes she is an object in life is inhibited, pushed, or driven, acting by command or intimidation, and powerless, and she can’t wait for each day to end.
At one time in my life, I felt shackled by my responsibilities, my family obligations, and the expectations of others. I asked a Franciscan monk, Father Tom, for advice. Instead of answering me directly, he jumped to his feet from the park bench and bolted to a nearby tree. He flung his arms around the tree, grasping it, as he screamed, “Save me from this tree! Save me from this tree!” I could not believe what I saw. I thought he had gone mad. The shouting soon attracted other people in the park. “Why are you doing that?” I asked. “I came to you for advice, but obviously you’re crazy. You are holding the tree; the tree is not holding you. You can simply let go.”
Father Tom let go of the tree and said, “If you can understand that, you have your answer. Your chains of attachment are not holding you; you are holding them. You can simply let go.” Life is not about waiting for the sun to shine. Life is about learning how to dance in the rain. ……………………