The emperor moth, with its wide wingspan, is the most majestic 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.
One day I found a cocoon of an emperor moth. I took it home so I could observe the moth come out of the cocoon. Soon, a small opening appeared in the cocoon. I sat and watched the moth for several hours as the moth struggled to force the body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could go no farther. It seemed to be stuck but kept struggling and pushing. I decided to help the moth, so I took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The moth then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. I expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. I waited and waited for the little moth to become the majestic moth it was born to become and fly gloriously away in freedom.
Nothing happened! In fact, the little moth spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen and shriveled body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly. What I did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the moth to get through the tiny opening was the way of forcing fluid from the body of the moth into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon. Freedom and flight would only come after the struggle. By depriving the moth of a struggle, I deprived the moth of health and it became entirely dependent upon me for its very survival.
Perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records “reality.” You construct how you choose to interpret your experiences. All human experiences in life are neutral. They have no meaning. We give the experiences meaning by how we choose to interpret them. Your interpretations will shape your theory about life and your theory will determine what you choose to observe in life. You will only observe what confirms your theory which then further reinforces your theory.
Some people from the same socio-economic backgrounds choose to be helpless victims while others from the same background choose to become self-reliant high achievers in life. Government programs make it easier for us not to struggle by providing welfare assistance and financial help when we are confronted with obstacles. If we go through life believing we are helpless victims and demanding society support us, we become like the baby moth I helped out of its cocoon, weak, helpless and a victim dependent upon the government for our survival.
We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: with purpose or adrift, with joy or with joylessness, with hope or with despair, with humor or with sadness, with a positive outlook or a negative outlook, with pride or with shame, with inspiration or with defeat and with honor or with dishonor. We decide what makes us significant or insignificant. No matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. Regardless of the circumstances, it is the individual who chooses the life they live.
When I think of people who chose to overcome their adversity in life, I think of Richard Cohen. You may not know Richard Cohen. He is the author of Blindsided: Lifting a Life above Illness (HarperCollins). 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 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. Struggles and adversity are exactly what we need in our life in order to become strong, independent and self-reliant.
Think for a moment about Abraham Lincoln who is considered by many the greatest president in the history of the U.S. Modern day psychologists would label his parents as dysfunctional and abusive. He was mocked and ridiculed by his school classmates for the way he looked and dressed. At age 22, he failed in business, he ran for the state legislature and was defeated, he tried to start another business and failed again. At age 26, he was rejected by a woman he loved and had a nervous breakdown. At age 33, he married a woman who was found to be mentally unstable, and once more was defeated for Congress. At age 37, he was finally elected to Congress but at age 39 he was once again defeated. He subsequently campaigned for and was defeated for the senate, vice presidency, and again for the senate. At age 51 he was elected president of the U.S.
Lincoln was not born with a positive “can do” attitude. On the contrary, his life is testimony that a positive attitude toward one’s experiences takes considerable effort and practice. Lincoln learned to expect difficulties, and, so was not traumatized and defeated when faced with problems but viewed them as part of the natural course of events. Lincoln learned the harder one works to sustain a positive interpretation, the more one appreciates life.
Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.
A journalist once asked President Lincoln how he developed such a strong-willed and independent personality. Lincoln replied “Adversity, adversity. It is by welcoming and overcoming all the adversities in your life do you become the person you are capable of becoming.”
(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)