There are few of us who wake up to the morning chirping of birds, stretch, yawn and think, “Ahhh. I hope a good, old-fashioned catastrophe strikes today.” No, we’re animals; so, from a biological standpoint – by our very nature – we like things that are predictable and life-sustaining. Things that are easy. Things that are good. We are drawn to things and people and situations things that leave us feeling content that we’ll make it to the next hour, day, week and beyond. We like things to line up just so; so when they don’t – Egads!
The notion of catastrophe in the stone ages might have meant a family member was eaten by a bear. Catastrophe today can take a lot of personalized forms. Catastrophe might mean the loss of family-sustaining income, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, or a bomb exploding in a place where its inhabitants felt safe. Reflect for a minute on the people you’ve known, the stories you’ve heard – things that have triggered that deep switch of empathy, a time when you thought, “Wow. That’s really too bad – how did so-and-so survive that?” Most of us – if we’ve been fortunate to avoid real hardship in our own life – know someone who’s been touched by catastrophe. Ultimately, I’m talking about something universally accepted as… terrible. A really hard life event.
But wait. How can anything terrible be good for us?
1. A battle makes us a warrior.
In Sherrilyn Kenyon’s book The Dark-Hunters, she writes, “The strongest steel is forged by the fires of hell. It is pounded and struck repeatedly before it’s plunged back into the molten fire. The fire gives it power and flexibility, and the blows give it STRENGTH. Those two things make the metal pliable and able to withstand every battle it’s called upon to fight.”
Let’s face it. There are everyday battles we’d never choose to fight. My first real battle happened in my thirties. Ambitious out of the chute, the dream of an executive leadership role in a prominent company one day was an almost foregone conclusion. Less than two decades into my “adult” life, I had scrapped my way to the top as the CEO of an overseas mobile company when the concept of “mobile” was still cutting-edge. I was traveling the world. I was interfacing with (and earning the respect of) business moguls worldwide. I was dining, networking, spa-ing, shopping – in short, I was doing just about anything I wanted. Life was fast, but it was fun. It was challenging. I was holding it where it counted. At the time, I felt like I’d really “arrived.” In retrospect, almost any given day just swirled into the vague blur that was my life, and nothing seemed in sharp focus. One day, unable to speak or move, everything changed. A young woman in my thirties, I’d had a stroke. Literally overnight, I went from someone others routinely consulted to someone who needed help getting out of bed. It was then that my recovery – my own, personal battle to redefine my life – began. Left weak, depressed and in many ways humiliated by the initial effects of my stroke; in my journey to fight back to regain my life, I would become strong, resilient and proud – as the very best warriors are.
2. Hardship gives us perspective.
I’ve always been open-minded. I was a good candidate for international travel because I was intrigued – even delighted by – the changing norms and cultural practices as I ventured to varying parts of the globe. What I hadn’t much considered, though, were those differences amongst us that are a little less glaring (and a lot less novel). Uber-independent by nature, I found it almost impossible to make sense of the sheer vulnerability caused by the effects of my stroke. Overwhelmed, before I knew it, I lay solid in the thick of clinical depression, and when I wasn’t depressed, I was anxious – all of which required medication and other forms of management that were all new to me. That made me feel even more incapable – that I relied on pharmaceuticals to make it through a routine day – which sucked me into a vicious cycle.
Fast forward. Today, the product of an almost poetic story of recovery, I am the strong leader of myself, my life, and a small mobile app company – aimed at helping people overcome the very things that temporarily debilitated me. I am not only aware that mental health issues exist (even in really capable, “normal” people), I am a fervent advocate of people who face any sort of life challenges. My stroke, an unequivocal “rock bottom” at the time, proved to be the catalyst I needed to obtain perspective I never realized I was lacking.
3. Adversity connect us.
Not everyone has ridden on a plane. Not everyone has eaten sushi. Not everyone has swum in the ocean or made an important speech or spoken Spanish. This list is endless, because there are a lot of things that a lot of people haven’t done.
Everyone, though, in some form, has faced hardship. Everyone has faced his/her own, personal battle. If you’ve faced something you consider catastrophic, and you talk with a teenage boy who has just had his heartbroken by a girl, you’ll understand one another in a quiet, inexplicable way. The most profound effect my untimely stroke had on me was: I connect differently with people. I connect stronger. Faster. More universally. Whether a child, an elderly person, or someone managing an everyday illness… I feel a raw sense of human connection when our eyes meet. It’s impossible to quantify, but I believe if you’ve spent any time in the place you consider a personal “rock bottom,” you’re changed in a way that becomes your wellspring for humility. And it’s a gift. To look at other human beings from all walks, in all circumstances, and feel at your core that you are somehow connected brings you a new and different kind of peace.
The message isn’t that you should wander out into the world audaciously to invite calamity into your life. Rather, my story is a testament that the hardest parts in life are often the ferries to deeper strength and peace than you could have ever imagined lie within you.
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Author: Karla Stephens-Tolstoy
CEO in the mobile phone industry to a hands-on, Canadian CEO in the mobile app/self-help industry; Karla Tolstoy enjoys reflecting on her never-ending journey and helping others via www.tokii.com