One of the key features of Martin Seligman’ brilliant work in Positive Psychology centres around the questions of how and why, when something bad happens it causes, some people to be desolated and other people to flourish. He sought to explore what exactly it was in the response of those who flourished, that caused them to flourish. Seligman wondered about the possibility that anyone could learn from those who flourish, and practice what is learnt to enhance their resilience and quality of life.
There is a refreshing logic to this. It echoes back to the ancient philosopher, Epictetus. He thought that it was not our problems that were our problem. He insisted that our problem was in how we thought about, and responded to, our problems. I found the best evidence for this in the writings of Victor Frankl who emerged from a Nazi concentration camp at the end of Word War 2 as something much more than a survivor. (I first read Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning” in my final year of high school and I continue to find it insightful, profound, enlightening and encouraging).
How we respond matters. It shapes us. In turn, we shape our future.
It has been refreshing to see the generosity of spirit emerge is so many people in recent weeks. There have been other responses that disappoint and embarrass but the responses of compassion, thoughtfulness and looking out for others – especially the vulnerable, matter most.
What I have learnt from my Formation work is that Seligman’s intuition was correct. Everyone can respond to adversity and flourish. For some it comes naturally. For most of us it requires intentionality and effort. We begin by making a choice.
Ever suffered from jet-lag? I have. It leaves me depleted, disoriented and out of synch. The older I get, the longer it seems to take to get over it. My late friend and correspondent, Fr Ed Hays once wrote that we moved so constantly and fast that we suffered “Soul-Lag”. He was right. As a result I have made an effort, only sometimes successfully, to simply slow down and be still when I could.
Likewise, Nietzsche wrote in “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1873) that “it is something to be able to raise our heads but for a moment and see the stream in which we are sunk so deep. We cannot gain even this transitory moment of awakening by our own strength; we must be lifted up”.
These ideas of “Soul-Lag” and “raising our heads for a moment to see” lie at the heart of my formation work with so many good people who go about doing a very good job planting seeds and shaping the future. These perspectives also explain the phenomenon of the moment we find ourselves in.
Raising our heads, we see some things that we have become, we don’t like. We also see acts of kindness, generosity, self-giving and humour.
As the wave that is moving across the world is giving us time and space to slow down and be still, it offers us the chance for the soul to catch up with us and shed its light on what we see and what we can be.
I’m backing kindness, generosity, self-giving, humour and community.
Dr Michael Downey is an Author, Teacher, Consultant, Retreat Leader & Workshop Facilitator. ,