Being Greater Than Your Suffering


If you have any doubt that, in the words of Ben Okri, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering,” than you haven’t met Sgt. 1st Class Greg Robinson, a combat engineer who became the first soldier with an amputated limb and prosthetic to complete the Army’s Air Assault School — a course so grueling his prosthetic broke twice.

Robinson lost his lower right leg in October 2006 during a fire-fight while deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

“My biggest thing today,” Robinson says, “is to let that someone who is laying there wounded in that hospital bed know not to get down on yourself. You can still continue despite missing a limb. A disability is only a disability if you let it hold you down.”

Robinson’s ability to not only survive, but to thrive in the face of adversity is a perfect example of resiliency — a trait that fortunately can be learned and strengthened.

What Is Resiliency?

The United States Army defines resiliency as, “The mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral ability to face and cope with adversity, adapt to change, recover, learn and grow from setbacks.”

In other words, resiliency is a character trait that helps us both act and react in appropriate and productive ways.

Resiliency as an Active Quality:

Resilient People Face the World Head on

  • Resilient people take risks and seize opportunities.
  • Resilient people don’t dwell on setbacks — they find ways to move beyond them.
  • Resilient people don’t shy away from pain. They know that “The best way out is always through.”

Resilient People Have Thick Skin

  • Resilient people are not afraid of embarrassment or failure.
  • Resilient people find ways to manage their pain and move beyond it.
  • Resilient people know that anything worth accomplishing will be difficult and painful.

Resiliency as a Reactive Quality:

Resilient People Take Setbacks in Stride

  • Resilient people know that defeat comes not from failing, but from giving up.
  • Resilient people take personal responsibility for their actions, yet they do not paralyze themselves with shame and guilt.
  • Resilient people do not run away when things stop being easy.

And perhaps most of all, resilient people do not let themselves feel helpless.

Learned Helplessness

Beginning in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Seligman, who is now a professor of psychology and the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, began a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that clinical depression and related mental illnesses result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

In the first part of his experiment, Seligman placed three groups of dogs into harnesses.

  • The dogs in the first group were simply left in the harnesses for a period of time and later released (the control group).
  • The dogs in the second and third groups were harnessed and subjected to electric shocks. The dogs in the second group could make the shocks stop by pressing a lever with their noses. The dogs in the third group received shocks of identical intensity and duration, but they had no way of making them stop. To them, the pain of being shocked was inescapable.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dogs in the first and second groups recovered quickly from the experiment. The dogs in the third group (the ones that had no recourse to make the shocks stop), however, had learned to feel helpless and exhibited symptoms consistent with clinical depression.

In the second part of his experiment, Seligman placed the three groups of dogs in a box in which they could escape the electric shocks by jumping over a low partition.

  • Again, it was the dogs in the first and second group that quickly figured out that if they jump over the partition, the pain of being shocked would end.
  • For the most part, the dogs from the third group stayed put and passively accepted the pain.
  • In the years since this experiment was first conducted, it has been repeated on other animals and adult humans as well. The results were always similar.

Ultimately, Dr. Seligman concluded that when we begin to believe there isn’t anything we can do to avoid pain, we will eventually stop trying altogether and instead behave as if we have no control — even when opportunities to escape are presented.

We can see evidence of this phenomenon in the war in Iraq.

“At first you are jumpy,” says one Iraq war veteran. “But after a while you become numb to it. You can’t maintain that high state of vigilance that long. You just accept it. You are going to get hit or you are not, and there is not much you can do about it.”

IED blasts in much of Iraq are so random and seemingly inescapable that few soldiers or Marines feel that they have any control. Many, like the one quoted above, simply accept their fate and push on.

Fortunately, having experiences in which we lose a sense of control over our lives does not guarantee that we’ll develop “learned helplessness.”

Through the course of his research, Seligman noted that about 2/3 of the participants that experienced a situation over which they had no control developed learned helplessness, while the remaining 1/3 did not.

Unlike the majority, the minority of participants who did not accept their fate were able to see the helpless situation as an isolated event. They did not carry the feeling of helplessness over to new challenges.

Why not?

Your Explanatory Style Dictates How You Will Respond to Adversity

Dr. Seligman discovered that the difference between those who were susceptible to learned helplessness and those who were able to bounce back was rooted in their explanatory style — that is, the way in which they explained to themselves what had happened.

Seligman argues that our perception of events can be divided into three categories:

  1. Personal (Internal vs. External): This involves how you explain why something happened to you (Is it your fault or someone else’s?)
  2. Permanent (Stable vs. Unstable): This involves how you explain the extent of the cause (For example, “I always fail at everything.”)
  3. Pervasive (Global vs. Local/Specific): This involves how you explain the extent of the effects (For example, “I’m never going to succeed.”)

Dr. Karen Reivich and Dr. Andrew Shatte, authors of The Resilience Factor: Seven Essential Skills for Overcoming Life’s Inevitable Obstacles, renamed Seligman’s categories:

  1. Me/Not Me
  2. Always/Not Always
  3. Everything/Not Everything

“Me, Always, Everything” person will, for example, believe that he caused the problem (Me), that nothing can be done to resolve the problem (Always), and that it will undermine all aspects of his life (Everything).

A “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” person, on the other hand, will face a problem by believing that other people or circumstances beyond his control caused the problem (Not Me), that the problem is fleeting (Not Always), and that it will not affect much of his life (Not Everything).

People with a “Me, Always, Everything” explanatory style are prone to pessimism, while people with a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” style are more likely to be optimistic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have shown that those with a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Without having ever spoken with Greg Robinson, I’m willing to bet that he is a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” kind of person.

Let’s examine — using Robinson’s situation — how a “Me, Always, Everything” person would react to losing a limb compared to a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” person:

  • If the person tends to be a “Me, Always, Everything” person, then he might explain losing a limb in combat by saying, “I’m so stupid. I wasn’t paying attention. I should have never jumped into that ditch when we starting taking incoming fire. I had no business being out there in the first place (Me). Now I’m never going to be able to lead a happy and successful life (Always). My wife is probably going to leave me because I’m such a burden. My life is shit (Everything).”
  • Now if the person tends to be a “Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything” person, then he might explain losing a limb in combat by saying, “I did everything I could. There was no way I could have avoided that IED (Not Me). With advances in medical technology, I’ll eventually be back on my feet. It will take time, but I’ll still get to live the life I want (Not Always). I’m going to turn this ‘disability’ into an opportunity. And thank God I have a good wife who can help me get through this (Not Everything).”

Why Are Optimistic People Optimistic?

According to Seligman:

  • About 50 percent is simply genetic. Some people are predisposed to be optimistic.
  • Another source is our mothers: “There’s a markedly high correlation between our level of optimism and your mother’s, but not your father’s. One theory to explain this correlation is that mothers still tend to be primary caretakers and therefore have a greater influence on their children.
  • “The third source is the reality of the bad events that happen to you. If you want to be an athlete but you’re born clumsy, you’re likely to expect one setback after another. A sequence of failures naturally leads to the expectation of failure.

If you approach life with a sense of possibility and the expectation of positive results, study after study show that you’re more likely to lead a life in which possibilities are realized and results are positive.

Seligman warns, however, that we should not think of optimism as a panacea. “[Optimism] doesn’t give you wisdom, compassion, or a direct line to the truth,” he says. Instead, Seligman advocates a “flexible optimism,” which factors in risk, rather than a blind faith in positive outcomes.

To be a flexible optimist is to (1) see the world accurately; (2) react appropriately, using the most effective explanatory style; and (3) avoid letting pessimism obscure your accomplishments.

You Can Change Your Explanatory Style for the Better

How we encounter and react to life’s setbacks can be broken down like this:

  • Adversity: We face a setback.
  • Beliefs: Next, we form thoughts, feelings, and an interpretation of the setback. These beliefs lead to:
  • Consequences: Our beliefs regarding the setback influence how we react.

It’s not adversity itself that creates our reactions. It’s our beliefs about our adversity.

If your beliefs have been leading to negative consequences and sabotaging your resiliency, you have to change the way you think about setbacks.

Seligman recommends judging your beliefs on four criteria:

  1. Evidence: What are the facts? Does the evidence support your belief?
  2. Alternative: Pessimists have a tendency to latch onto the grimmest of explanations for a bad event, oftentimes ignoring more positive explanations.
  3. Implications: When faced with a setback, pessimists have a tendency to jump to more and more catastrophic implications. But what are the chances of these implications really happening?
  4. Usefulness: Just because a belief if true doesn’t mean it’s useful.

So what does all of this mean? It may sound trite, but your life can be whatever you want it to be.

How to Be More Optimistic

For most of us, being optimistic is easier said than done. Fortunately, David Mezzapelle, author of Contagious Optimism: Uplifting Stories and Motivational Advice for Positive Forward Thinking, has shared 10 tips to help us live more optimistically:

  1. Have Gratitude: “It all starts with counting our blessings. If you are not grateful for the good things in your life, you will never be satisfied. Take inventory of the good around you. But don’t neglect what’s not great, either: You also need to be grateful for the hardships, the obstacles, the failures. Why? Because these are the points of wisdom in your life. They give you strength, they teach you how to persevere, and they form your resilience. Being thankful for every step makes life’s hardships surmountable. All of this is the foundation of optimism; being psyched about the good and the bad, and knowing that they all point to a bright future.”
  2. Share Your Stories: “I believe we all have the capacity to live optimistically just by sharing our life’s adventures, our successes and even our failures. Just knowing others have been in the same boat and have persevered is comforting. It spreads a message of hope, and hope is the main ingredient in optimism. When we share our stories we are giving others the tools they need to build, evolve, and persevere. In essence, mankind is always ‘paying it forward.’”
  3. Forgive: “This is easier said than done but you need to forgive those that have affected your ability to find the silver linings. I believe that the easiest way to forgive and move on is to reflect on the fact that the past is the past. Just look at it this way; the person that you are having a hard time forgiving probably wishes that he or she could erase the past as well. In summary, make peace with your past so that it won’t spoil the present. Once you accomplish this, you will close those chapters and live a more positive and happy life.”
  4. Be A Better Listener: “When you listen you open up your ability to take in more knowledge versus blocking the world with your words or your distracting thoughts. You are also demonstrating confidence and respect for others. Knowledge and confidence is proof that you are secure and positive with yourself thus radiating positive energy.”
  5. Turn Envy And Jealousy Into Energy: “When we envy others we are only hurting ourselves. The universe does not owe you because someone else is better off than you. Channel that energy into building your personal and professional brand. Consider other people’s success the catalyst to help you achieve.”
  6. Smile More, Frown Less: “When we smile we are creating a happy, stimulating environment around us that draws others in. Frowning, on the other hand, shuts people out and has the opposite effect. Happiness, even in brief doses, releases Serotonin (the happy hormone). It makes the toughest days surmountable.”
  7. Exercise, Eat A Healthy Diet, and Take In Vitamin D: “This may be common advice, but we all need some form of exercise and sunlight every day–even if it’s only for 15 minutes. If you can’t get natural sunlight, ask your doctor about Vitamin D supplements and/or light therapy. If you can’t get exercise during your busy schedule, use the staircase instead of the elevator or park in the furthest parking spot. Whatever it takes, keep yourself in healthy motion as often as you can. Consider balanced meals and don’t push away those fruits and vegetables. If you feel hunger throughout the day, consider almonds and walnuts if you are not allergic. If you are predisposed to allergies, consider frequent smaller meals throughout the day instead of three larger ones. The energy we get from exercise, a healthy diet, and light exposure gives us focus, clarity and a naturally positive demeanor.”
  8. Be A Positive Forward Thinker: “Positive forward thinking is the ability to find the silver lining in every cloud, apply it to today or yesterday and be hopeful that tomorrow will be better. Imagine surgery; you think the worse and can’t wait for it to be over. Take all that and start visualizing what the point of the surgery is and what the results of the procedure will deliver. The goal is good, it’s only today that may seem rough…. Like anything else, working hard will always deliver results. Life is not a lottery. It’s what you make of it.”
  9. Stop Blaming Others: “It is so easy to blame others for our position in life. People blame the economy, politicians, bosses, and all types of third parties for their problems. Once you truly accept that you control who you are, you will find that optimism and success come naturally. Remember, opportunity is usually found in the valleys, not at the peaks.”
  10. Understand That the Past Is Not a Blueprint for the Future: “Just because you’ve experienced adversity in your life does not mean that what starts badly will end badly. Do not make bad experiences a self-fulfilling prophecy of what lies ahead. On the contrary, know that those milestones are behind you and the road to the future is clear.”

Moreover, according to Richard Boyatzis, a psychologist at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve, it’s very important to have positive long-term goals. “Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities,” he says. “But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down.”

All told, Boyatzis argues that when we focus on our strengths, we are taking a step toward a desired future that stimulates openness to new ideas, people, and plans. In contrast, when we spotlight our weaknesses, we elicit a defensive sense of obligation and guilt, closing us down.


In his very influential book, Man’s Search for MeaningJewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, argued that man must remain optimistic in spite of those aspects of human existence characterized by (1) pain, (2) guilt, and (3) death. How, he wondered, can man retain the meaning of life in spite of these tragic aspects?

What matters, Frankl argued, is to make the best of any given situation. More specifically, man must strive to (1) turn pain and suffering into a opportunity for growth and achievement, (2) derive from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better, and (3) derive from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

Frankl also wrote more generally about the difference between pessimism and optimism. I think one parable, in particular, is worth sharing:

“The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is life a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.'”