I did a radio interview a few nights ago with Rollye James (what a delightful host!) and there was a question she asked me a couple of times that really got me thinking.
She had read my new book, The Ultimate Guide to Frugal Living in which I outlined some of the financial problems I’d experienced. We talked about how over the course of a year, the hits just kept coming – I lost my dad, my kids’ dad, my house, my car, and my job. (I wrote about the emotional aspect of this and what to do in really dire circumstances in this PDF.)
She asked me more than once, “How did you keep going?”
And that’s a really good question. How do you survive what feels insurmountable? How do you manage when your entire life is like a row of dominos and everything is falling over, one thing after another after another? How can you face the next day when every day seems to just bring more stress, more fear, and more worry?
It’s difficult to answer, too. We all have different things that keep us going. We have different motivations and different troubles. I can only answer for myself.
I kept going because I had to keep going.
Honestly, what else was I going to do? I had children to raise and they were going to keep needing me and a roof over their heads and school supplies and winter coats and food and a mom, regardless of whether or not I wanted to keep going. Whether I felt like I had it in me or not, I absolutely had to pull rabbits out of hats. I had to keep working as hard as I could. I had to keep analyzing my situation and changing my strategies to keep us at least somewhat afloat. Perhaps clinging to a life-preserver instead of in the boat, but afloat nonetheless with our noses just above the waterline.
You have to keep going, too.
What else is your option? You can keep going or you can give up. Those are your only two choices. And what happens when you give up? Your already terrible situation gets even worse – sometimes it could even lead to you becoming the victim of a horrific crime or even death.
So you keep going.
But that answers why, not how.
Believe things will get better.
I’ll admit, there were some dark times during which it felt like nothing would ever get better. There were times when every single day seemed to bring something even worse than the day before. Sometimes it felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel but it turned out that, oh, look, the freakin’ tunnel is on fire. And then there’s still more tunnel after the fire.
But somehow, I’ve always been an optimist. It may not be a sign of sanity – I have been through some deep stuff and still always thought that things would get better and that one day, things would not be such a struggle.
As far as optimism is concerned, if you aren’t a natural optimist, it can be difficult to cultivate that character trait. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s a pattern, not something that is in your DNA. Both optimism and pessimism are habits, and habits can be changed. This article on Psychology Today has some great advice about becoming a more optimistic person.
Don’t underestimate the importance of hope and optimism in these situations. If you believe that things will get better, then you are in the mindset to seize any opportunities to make things better. Alternatively, if you believe your life can never change, you’ve pretty much doomed yourself to the certainty that it won’t and you may not even recognize those opportunities if they walk up and tap you on the shoulder.
I can tell you from experience that all those doors which slammed shut on me during that two-year period directed me toward a different life – one that was much better. I started following my dreams because I had nothing left to lose. At the age of 42, the life I’d always dreamed of (being a writer) began on the ashes of the life I’d worked so hard to build. You may look back one day on this difficult period of time and say, “Yeah, when I thought everything was going wrote? That was when it all began to go right.”
Focus on gratitude.
One thing that can help is focusing on gratitude. Think about the things you do have as opposed to the things that you don’t have.
Moving to a smaller place? Be thankful for a cozy home and a roof over your head.
Eating beans and rice? Be glad you have the makings of a substantial meal.
Be glad you can figure out a way to repair broken things, be grateful that you encountered a kind person, and be thankful that you and your family members are all together. Spend more time on the positives in your life instead of the negatives. The place where you focus more of your attention is the place where you’ll focus more of your energy.
And don’t just make it about bigger, life-sustaining things. Find joy in a sunset, happiness in hearing children playing at the park, and peace by a bubbling stream. Really enjoy that first sip of coffee in the morning right down to your soul. The saying about enjoying the little things seems trite, but it will make you a much happier person.
Gratitude won’t solve your problems but it’s a great starting point for getting your head in the right place.
Recognize that things are going to be different.
If you get mired into trying to make everything like it used to be, you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. What you’re going through will change you. Regardless of whether or not your finances turn around, you are going through a period of growth when things are difficult. You won’t be the same person after this. You’ll look at money, possessions, and the people around you differently.
Trying to recapture your old life may be an exercise in futility. While you were struggling the rest of the world did not stand still waiting for you to get your poop together.
I’ll never forget a few years after our crisis when my old home went up for sale. I eagerly went to the MLS listing to see the interior of my beautiful home, the stairway I’d refinished, the walls I’d meticulously painted, the tile I had installed.
It was all gone.
The new owners had ripped out the beautiful antique staircase and put in some modern monstrosity. They’d removed the wall where our piano had stood and done an open concept with more modern monstrosity railing behind it. They’d replaced my tile with something utilitarian and boring. They’d painted over my carefully selected wall colors. They’d chopped down the Rose of Sharon trees that shaded the back patio every summer.
It was devastating to see.
But it was an important reminder that when your old life is gone, it’s gone. You cannot recreate it. But you can move on to new adventures and new opportunities. You can’t face the future if you’re seeking the past.
You can do this. You have no option but to do this.
If you are going through an extremely difficult time, please know that you’re not alone. Many people are having problems due to current events.
The best way I can describe the chaos is this:
It’s like an avalanche – once it starts it just keeps picking up speed and carrying away everything in its path. The only things you can do to survive are to try to grab onto something solid to stop your downward trajectory, try to stay on top of the falling debris, make an air pocket with your arm, and then dig your way out. It’s not easy but that’s survival.
Difficult times are very similar. Just keep going forward, because one day, you’ll look around and say, “Hey, I didn’t even realize this happened, but I made it. I survived the most difficult period of time in my life so far.”
You can do this.