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Coping Is Not The Answer

Is this person alive?

Is this person alive?

I am addicted to browsing people’s bookshelves.  When I go into someone’s house for the first or thousandth time, I walk to every bookshelf I see and scan the titles.  Over the years, this habit has revealed an interesting and tragic insight: I see so many books about coping.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having a book or books that help you improve yourself and live with greater happiness.  What I see, however, is that many bookshelves might by 90% full of books about coping.  As if the goal at the end of the day is to stumble through your front door, kiss the floor, and marvel that you were able to survive for another 24 hours.

Seriously, what does this crazy ratio suggest?  You know I want you to spend most of your time with your nose in a book, but you can’t spend 90% of your reading time figuring out how to cope with real life once you put the book down.

Anyone Can Cope

But you are not just anyone.

I spent ten years wishing things were better but doing very little.  I complained constantly and sobbed in my bed but took no steps to improve my situation or mental state.

I had no hope.  I wanted to die.  I tried ever-so-halfheartedly to commit suicide.  I was a master of self-pity and I refused to take responsibility for anything.

Never again.

Coping Is Just Surviving

Coping is surviving.  Surviving can mean as little as drawing breath.  You can’t will yourself to quit breathing.  You can’t do it.  Therefore, you will continue to exist.  While you exist, at the very least, you will cope with your situation.

But there is little joy or progress in coping.  Coping is pills without conviction.  Coping is tears without end.  Coping is trudging forward while slowly letting go of hope.  Hope fades when there is no proactivity and you cannot be proactive while simultaneously expecting problems to fix themselves.

Nobody is in your mind but you

Other people can help you in many ways, but they cannot step inside your head.  During one of my worst stretches, my mother said endlessly, “I would do anything to take some of your pain away.”

Honestly, I would have done anything to let her take some of it.  But that’s not how it works.  She could not help me to live, and since I was determined to cope and do no more, all she could do was wait me out while I endured and rotted away in my head and heart.

I am not arguing against medicine or tears or family or the need for a sympathetic ear.  But I am arguing furiously against the idea that our circumstances are absolutely out of our control.

From:  Man’s Search For Meaning,

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves – Victor Frankl

Amen, Dr. Frankl.

If you have cancer, narcolepsy, Tourette’s, Multiple Sclerosis, two lazy eyes, ten lazy eyes, no legs, no money, no brains, no education…

Well–

Someone is always dealing with something worse and handling it better.  There is always someone to be inspired by.  Things are never so bad that they can’t improve.

No matter what you don’t have, you do have options.  Live or survive.  Punch the misery clock and watch the sand run out or choose what time it is yourself and get through it.

There are things you can do, but it takes effort and sometimes it sucks and you can’t always win.  You might spend years losing more than you win.  I lost a whole decade and wish I’d wised up about 3,000 days sooner.

If you quit trying for more, one day, whenever it is your time–you may realize that you did not spend your life doing the one thing lives are for…

…living.

Take care of yourself.  Take the proper steps.  Ride along when you need to, but never miss a chance to take the wheel back.  Give yourself permission to hurt and suffer when you need to, but never for longer than you need to.

Find something good and chase it.

I’ll be doing the same.

Josh

PS: Did you get a free guest post from me yet?


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  • Allison Reynolds September 16, 2009, 3:08 am

    Josh I so hope people listen…but they won’t. You will need to face it sweety, it takes some real s***ty stuff to make the best people step up.

    People like us.

    Others are propped up by the rest of the world, encouraged to blame others for where they are.

    In the end it’s live and let die, no matter how much we click our heels and wish for utopia.

  • Greg September 16, 2009, 5:11 am

    Wow! Powerful post Josh.

    You’re exactly right of course. Everyone has had bad things happen to them. Some more so than others. But ultimately, we were given this life to live.

  • Gordie Rogers September 16, 2009, 5:13 am

    I think for us non-Americans, we see you guys portrayed on TV and movies as people who make a lot of use of therapists. It’s almost alien to some of us non-Americans. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not, but I think many people tend to look inwards too much. They forget to look at and experience the beauty of life. Even just the touch of warm sunshine on my face in winter or the smell of cut grass perks me up and makes me think life is pretty cool if you are willing to appreciate it.

    • Debbie January 6, 2011, 7:27 am

      I am American, I find myself in a bitter battle with America and its materialistic values. It seems that most Americans are bitter, mad, and sad, and forget to look at the beauty of people or the world, because they don’t have enough as the next person. Material items are the big goal in life. Sad as it may seem, that is the American way, and I just do not fit in.

  • Laura - The Journal of Cultural Conversation September 16, 2009, 5:31 am

    Interesting that you should write this. I was unpacking my boxes of books (still) and came across 50+ self help books. “Help, I’m in Love with a Narcissist” was right next to “What Not To Wear.” I decided this weekend that I was going to keep all of them (at the time they played an important role in my life when I truly needed help) but they were going to go in a box in the closet. Thanks, too, for sharing your story, Josh. As you said, we all have something.

  • Rob September 16, 2009, 5:33 am

    Great post Josh and something I can relate with. I feel like I’m coping at work but need to step up to the mark and put things straight, this is just the inspiration I need. You’re right about too many people having too many books on coping, one should be enough, if you’ve got more than one then that should tell you something. I’m going to throw mine away and get things in order, in ever aspect of my life.
    Thanks for sharing

    Cheers
    Rob

  • Casey September 16, 2009, 5:45 am

    That was some powerful stuff right there man!

    “As I breathe, I hope” is on my family’s crest (didn’t even know we had one till a few years ago). It’s simple, but potent.

    I’ll have days, weeks, or even months were I’m just going in circles of self-pity before I realize I am in control of this crazy life of mine and it’s up to me to fix it.

    Self pity is the easy part! Making things better is what’s tough. But if it wasn’t tough, then it wouldn’t be worth it.

  • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2009, 6:51 am

    @Allison. I’m going to keep clicking me heels. I’m just not worrying about other people clicking theirs anymore to get me somewhere.

    @Greg. No doubt. Well said.

    @Gordie: Great insight. I’d agree that I also believe there is a disproportionate amount of long black couches floating around here. I do believe there is great value in therapy–I’ve seen it myself. Sometimes it helps to have someone objective listen to you who doesn’t get wrapped up in emotional biases when you break down. But too many people think “I need therapy” because I know a lot of people get therapy. Therapists don’t fix anything. Good ones teach you how to fix yourself, if you want. Bad ones don’t know anything we don’t.

    @Laura: I certainly don’t advocate for throwing those books away:) The more the merrier, as long as you only have one copy of Twilight.

    @Rob: What’s your job? You can’t have too many books. I don’t even care if I have 100 books about coping, as long as I have 10,000 about other things.

    @Casey. I want a family crest! How did you find out about that?

  • Stephanie Smith September 16, 2009, 6:53 am

    All I can say is: WOW. This has GOT to be the best post I have read in too long. You hit the nail on the head with “Someone is always dealing with something worse and handling it better. There is always someone to be inspired by. Things are never so bad that they can’t improve.”. If only people would realize that truism.
    My husband says somthing similar: Ask anyone and most will tell you they have had a tough life or tough times. Some can be argued as to which is worse, but it doesn’t matter – what matters is how you react to it. – From someone like him who was abused by his adoptive parents, did 3 tours in ‘Nam and has been through more adversity in his life than I can comprehend -his optimism astounds me. He made a choice not to let those circumstances dictate the type of person he would be.
    You can let life drag you along or you can do something. Sometimes it is simply getting through one day at a time and sometimes it is changing the way you look at your problem, condition, disease,etc. The power of our minds is unparalleled. As they say, choose misery and you will find it. With life, there is ALWAYS hope for change- that is how I coped with many overwhelming, scary things in my life. It works -you survive and then you live and you can find peace and hope.
    Thanks for this Josh -I am sending it to my mom -she is battling both cancer and severe degenerative disc problems, that restrict her activity tremendously. She is a SURVIVOR though, so I know she will love your post.

  • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2009, 7:45 am

    Stepanie, Good luck to your mother. She sounds like a tough person. I’m always glad to have a nurse’s perspective on these sorts of posts.

  • Tim September 16, 2009, 8:52 am

    Josh:

    Great post! As someone with a lot of self improvement books on my shelves, I’ve often wondered how someone would judge me. You would think that I would be the most effective human being on earth by now. Same goes for the business, law of attraction and money books – if I applied everything (and it was as easy as they say it is) I would be wealthy and be establishing my own foundation instead of looking for a job.

    You are so right about us having more control of our lives than we give ourselves credit for. We just need to really live fully. Thanks again for a very inspiring, well-written post!

  • Positively Present September 16, 2009, 9:04 am

    Awesome (and inspiring!) post… I completely agree that we have the ability to choose happiness, no matter what the situation.

  • Craig Brown September 16, 2009, 9:25 am

    Josh- Do you remember the coninuums form Dan’s lecture? I think we all have a continuum for what our life is like. For some folks, it’s “rich & famous” on one end and “pure suffering” on the other. For others it’s “not so crazy today” at the top “completely nuts” at the bottom. However we do get to choose our ranges to some extent. Those who have been in (any kind of) hell find the weather (and company) pretty great everywhere else.

    I’m semi-Buddhist in my thinking, and I often tell people that in pain is a side effect of living, but suffering is optional.

    Great post.

  • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2009, 1:12 pm

    @Craig: I do remember the lecture and I think you’re right. The last thing I expected to pop up here was the “hip displacement continuum.” Does that mean you’re semi-serene?

    @Positively Present: Thanks. I know you practice what you preach.

    @Tim: there’s nothing wrong with the books. I have a lot of friends that want to be writers. So they spend all of their time reading books about writing and rarely write a word themselves. Reading books about living is not living. But you can live AND read books about living. the books just aren’t what usually lead to the change.

  • Jon Owens September 16, 2009, 1:40 pm

    Excellent post Josh.

  • Lori September 16, 2009, 2:32 pm

    Wow, Josh, well said!
    I agree there is certainly always someone dealing with something worse and handling it better.
    I enjoyed being inspired by you today. 🙂

  • Leigh Anne September 16, 2009, 3:56 pm

    Hurray! Best library blog ever! Or, at least, most-needed. Thank you for this. It will be forwarded to friends and colleagues alike (and tattooed on my brain, for future use/reminders).

  • Boris Bachmann September 16, 2009, 4:52 pm

    My favorite quote from Man’s Search For Meaning, and on the same topic, is:

    We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

    – Viktor Frankl

  • Helen Hoefele September 16, 2009, 6:01 pm

    That is great advice. I used to have quite a few personal development books on my shelves…and I went to enough related seminars as well. I got some good advice from each of them, but in the end rather quickly went right back to my old ways (though with small steps of progress, too). I’m now at the end of a business book kick (which is quite similar in many ways), but I’m realizing, too, as you’ve said that the action-taking and mental focus aspects can only come from within.

    BTW, one person I’ve met along the way that I found truly inspirational is Bill Cawley, who became a quadrapalegic at the age of 24, and has gone on to still meet all of his life goals (not in the way he expected, but I’d say he’s probably living a much more fulfilled life than I am. Though, I’m sure I’ll get there eventually, too.) If you’d like to read a bit more about him, see his site here: http://www.billcawleyspeaks.com/ .

    Anyway, glad we have this blog to share our experiences together. Stay strong, All!

  • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2009, 6:06 pm

    @Jon & Lori: Thank you both. Glad you liked it.

    @Boris: I just finished listening to MSFM on audio again. The voice really added something for me this time. Great quote and almost too heartbreaking to think about.

    @Helen, I’ve never heard of Bill Cawley. I’ll look him up. Thanks for the link.

  • Casey Brazeal (North and Clark) September 17, 2009, 7:51 am

    This is the type of article where you shine.

    You’re frank and personal words make it hard to look away from the screen.

  • Craig Brown September 17, 2009, 11:01 am

    Josh, what I mean is that I believe that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism in large part explain how one should live regardless of belief structure. They address the actual function of the human body/mind and give tools to correct imbalances. These are not the only explanations and methodologies possible, but they are perhaps the clearest.

    I like to think of them as the Functional Movement Screen for the mind/body/spirit.

  • We Fly Spitfires September 17, 2009, 1:49 pm

    Very moving and compelling post!

    I’ve got quite a few books on “coping” – namely cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – but I find that I read them briefly and then never implement any of it. Having actually had professional CBT with trained therapists, I think there’s no substitue for face-to-face interaction.

    I think coping books are like safety blankets. We like to read them and like the idea of them but ultimately they don’t really sink in. At least not for me.

  • Brianna Thompson September 17, 2009, 5:26 pm

    This was fantastic and insightful without being overly shrink-ish or sentimental. You sound wiser than your years, Josh, and I’m so glad I finally checked out your blog. It’s rad, I’m telling everyone I know about it.

  • Victoria Vargas September 19, 2009, 11:48 am

    Once again, you’re rocking! One of the best insights is in your comment above about friends who read endlessly about writing, but don’t just sit down and write. I’ve been fairly guilty of that myself over the past years, but am challenging myself to just write. On days when the hamster wheel seems to be turning a bit too fast and chaotic at my job or my family is self-combusting, I can’t wait to retreat to the comfort of a good book. Not a bad ‘coping’ strategy – sure beats the heck out of substance abuse – but after time it becomes habit. As you mention in another post, synching our habits with our goals is a good way to get out of the comfort of old coping mechanisms and LIVE! Thanks for another great post, Josh. You’re on fire.

  • Fiona Leonard September 19, 2009, 1:12 pm

    Great Post.

    I was brought up in a family with a knack for seeing the worst in any situation. I decided recently that I was over being on Team Disappointment! As you pointed out, there’s no joy in that sort of life – no matter how many books you read.

    Am currently experimenting with the radical notion of making ‘feeling good’ my modus operandi. Surprisingly difficult concept to get my head around, but a lot of fun!!

    • Josh Hanagarne September 19, 2009, 2:17 pm

      @Fiona: Team Disappointment. Did you guys have uniforms?

      @Victoria: Thanks. I only say that because I’ve read every book about writing that is out there myself. You don’t get strong by reading about weights, you don’t get a book published by reading a how-to publish guide, and you don’t cheer up just because someone says “you should cheer up.” Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 22, 2009, 2:06 pm

    Love this posting, Josh, and thanks again for quoting our friend Frankl. The man was a bonafide genius. Anyway, unfortunately, too many people choose to exist, not live. And I say “choose” because we can choose how we cope with whatever cards life deals us. We choose our destiny.

    I have to admit that before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was miserable. I was never fully aware that I could do more than just cope. Since diagnosis and treatment, I’m a different person. I appreciate life so much more and see all the possibilities out there for me. I do have pity parties, but like any parties, they are eventually over and then the sun shines through.

    I’m happy, though, because I choose to live my life in a way that happiness is a result, not the means to an end.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 22, 2009, 2:20 pm

      Beth, I”ll never get sick of quoting Frankl. Never!

  • Vanessa September 23, 2009, 2:11 am

    I’ve never read a book on coping mostly because people have been giving them to me since I was 10 and I’m still a proud stubborn little brat.
    Thank you for this post. Some people become deeply addicted to the cope. It’s the saddest thing in life to watch happen. Id much rather watch the suffering in rage and bloody fight than the empty complacent lukewarm coping. Does that even make sense? I don’t know, it’s almost 1AM. I also really can’t stand reading constant quoting & passionate preaching about the purpose of suffering from people who I know have never dealt or witnessed any degree of human suffering themselves. I swear I read about 5-50 posts like these a day.
    And btw, about what you wrote to Laura: I always keep an extra copy of Twilight handy in case someone comes by who hassnt read it. Have to build my army.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 23, 2009, 8:23 am

      Vanessa, I’m really trying to quit with the Twilight stuff. It just keeps creeping in. Your army definitely outnumbers mine. I’ll be running for the mountains when you all come for me.

      How’s your son doing?

  • Vanessa September 23, 2009, 2:01 pm

    Joshy is doing great. He is the king of magical cardsharking with the hand he was delt. Not to say he doesn’t have his rage moments. He has your letter framed.
    My mother is in her last months of terminal cancers. She has an amazing spiritual resolve. I’m fortunate to be blessed with a family of such strong & gifted & souls.
    Hope you are doing better too, I’m sure all that time with Adam and the amazing snoring bull dog was good meds.

  • Oleg Mokhov October 20, 2009, 8:07 am

    Hey Josh,

    A fulfilling life is proactive, not reactive.

    If you’re reactive, you’re not living life to the fullest. You’re just being defensive and good-enoughing wherever you are. Reacting and coping just enough to survive and not have life totally suck. This job is good enough. This relationship could be worse. It sucks I have this condition, what can I do?

    If you’re proactive, you don’t settle for less. You’re striving to maximize life. You do what you want, and if you’re not currently able to, you figure out how rather than give excuses for why you can’t.

    How can I make this better? How can I bring more happiness? What are the good things here, and how do I drop the bad?

    Coping and reacting isn’t the path to awesomness; it’s a mediocre survival strategy. A proactive approach to life leads to filled-to-the-brim happiness, clarity, and passion.

    Great article on why coping is definitely NOT the answer,
    Oleg

    • Josh Hanagarne October 20, 2009, 9:28 am

      Oleg, thanks. Maybe the blog should have been called “the path to awesomeness.” Excuses are easy and complaining is easy. Things can always improve.