Expert Series: Overcoming Adversity. Some Survive. The Great Ones Thrive.
By Steve Kayser
In a mall bookstore, I began flipping through a book at random. It could have been any book. But it was “The Beethoven Factor,” by Dr. Paul Pearsall. A random flip had landed me on page 101. Every once in a while, in one of those delightfully rare and magical moments of accidental discovery, a jarring thud of healing inspiration and hope occurs. I had one of those moments. On page 101 of “The Beethoven Factor,” I looked down and read a brief snippet.
It described a 22-year-old woman. She had just begun her life, just started teaching English Literature in high school. Then … she was struck down by a drunk driver. She was left pentaplegic (unable to move her arms or legs, and unable to breathe on her own.) She was on a ventilator. Life for her was over, right? Wrong. At that time, she was writing a book about her experiences on a computer that had been specially adapted to allow her to operate the keys with a stick held in her mouth.
And yet, she still had a sense of humor.
“You don’t have to feel screwed. You can construe. Trust me, that one word has very special power. The dictionary says it means to discover and apply meaning, and what a power that is. It means your life is all in your mind. I am actually happier and more productive now than I have ever been. I sure have more friends and, as you can easily see, I am totally free from multitasking.”- From Dr. Paul Pearsall’s “The Beethoven Factor”
His ninth symphony, “ Ode To Joy,” was written when Beethoven was totally deaf. The chords and chorus heard only in his mind. Was he so crazy as to think that this musical wonder haunting his mind could be adequately expressed to others though he could not hear himself?
On May 7, 1824, at Vienna’s Kärtnertor Theater, “The Ninth Symphony” was first performed. Beethoven, totally deaf, could not conduct the premiere. He did stand next to the conductor during the performance to indicate proper tempi. On the final note of the premiere, the audience exploded with thunderous applause, and some of the players in the orchestra wept. Beethoven, standing next to the conductor with his back to the crowd, looked straight ahead–he didn’t know. He had heard nothing. The solo contralto noticed and turned him around. One could only wonder what went through his mind at that moment. He could not hear. But he could see. He bowed before the cheering crowd. His “Ode to Joy” was received with rare, effusively raw human emotion. The kind reserved for awe-inspiring moments of a singular human’s triumph over seemingly unconquerable odds.
Dr. Pearsall uses Beethoven as a stellar example of what he calls a “Thriver.” Beethoven, not only in spite of his adversity … but because of his adversity, epitomized the “Art of Thriving.” Dr. Pearsall was a Thriver too. He barely survived birth, conquered among a litany of other obstacles, total blindness. And then finally, cancer. Dr. Pearsall’s triumph over terminal cancer is documented in the bestseller Miracle in Maui.
Survive Terminal Cancer?
Yes. He was told he would certainly die of an extremely rare type of cancer that strikes down young and healthy people in the prime of their lives. And, for a little extra good cheer, Dr. Pearsall was also told that even if his cancer went into remission he’d die anyway. Die from suffocation caused by a deadly virus allowed to attack his lungs by his chemotherapy-and-radiation-weakened immune system.
He was told the terminal good news on a Good Friday. That day, as he walked slowly down his driveway, the ache of cancer eating away at him, feeling lost and hopeless, he opened his mailbox and noticed an envelope marked “Urgent. Internal Revenue Service.” Selected for a random compliance audit of State and Federal tax records for three years. How’s that for some good cheer on Good Friday? How did he react? He laughed. Laughed so hard he cried. My kinda guy.
Steve(S): What is the Beethoven Factor?
Dr. Pearsall (Dr. P): The Beethoven Factor is “Stress Induced Growth.” Like the composer, there are persons for whom adversity is a stimulus for personal growth and creativity. Also like Beethoven, they aren’t “super humans.” Like all of us, they are flawed beings. They are not just naive blind optimists. They are “benefit finders” who can discover growth where many others see only disaster.
“Be a ‘benefit finder;” discover growth where others see only disaster.”
“Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of the Gods. So let us celebrate the struggle!”- Swahili Warrior Song
S: You use Beethoven as the epitome of a “Thriver.” Could you explain?
Dr. P: Beethoven was a brilliantly creative person. Even pending death, total deafness, and often deep despair didn’t prevent him from composing the “Ode to Joy” when we might expect him instead to compose the “Ode to Misery.”
“When Ode to Misery beckons … find your Ode to Joy.”
“Life begins on the other side of despair” –Jean Paul Sartre
S: What did you think and/or feel when an editor told you that you were a “difficult author” because you were likely to die before you could promote your book?
Dr. P: I’ve long ago learned the P’s of dealing with bad news and toxic people. I don’t take criticism or adversity Personally, and do not view setbacks in one area of my life as Pervasive to all other areas, and most of all, I know that that nothing is Permanent.
|The P’s of dealing with bad news and toxic people:
- Don’t take criticism or adversity Personally.
- Setbacks in one area of your life are not Pervasive to other areas of your life.
- Know that nothing is Permanent.
S: In your book you speak about “five reactions to life’s challenges.” What are they?
Dr. P: When adversity strikes, we can kindle, meaning make matters worse for ourselves by self-pity and anger, or, we can become victims stuck in a “poor me” mode. We can become survivors, but that wastes a lot of creative energy. That’s why I never call myself a cancer “survivor.” We can bounce back to recovery and keep on going on, ever on the brink of relapses, or we can be resilient and get back to where we were before our adversity or challenge. The Beethoven Factor is about thriving, when we actually manage to flourish, not only in spite of, but also because of, your crisis.
|Five Reactions to Life’s Challenges … Choose Wisely
- Kindling – Make matters worse. React like kindling wood added to fire.
- Suffering – Poor me.
- Surviving – Pretty essential, but don’t you want more?
- Resilience – Bouncing back to where you were before.
- Thriving – Flourishing not only in spite of the crisis, but because of it.
S: Are there certain questions one could ask to see if an individual is thriving … or trying to?
Dr. P: In the book, I have a checklist. The more items you check in the checklist, the more likely it is you’re honing your talent for thriving. Some of the questions would include.
|Dr. P’s Thriving Talent Questions
- Do you feel more alive today than yesterday?
- Do people seem to be made happier by your presence?
- Are you laughing hard every day?
- Are you in love with life?
- Have you been made stronger by adversity?
- Do you often feel overwhelmed by the grandeur and beauty of simple things?
S: What’s your definition of thriving?
Thriving“The emergence of a new creative spirit through and because of the darkest times, a spirit that guides us to the Beethoven Factor so we too, can creatively conduct our daily life as an ode to joy.”- Dr. Paul Pearsall
S: How do you find meaning in misery? In your book, you speak of a man called Izzie. How he found meaning in misery. Izzie is 86 years old, in robust health, vibrantly alive, happy as all get-out, and has a devilish twinkle in his eye. But Izzie has also, in his life …
Watched his sister and parents be dragged away in the middle of the night
Watched his sister be raped
Watched as Nazi soldiers shot and killed his family … he ran away with eyes closed and fingers in his ears
Was tortured, starved to skin and bones
Slept for more than a year in human waste with the haunting, agonizing cries of his fellow prisoners
Izzie should be dead.
Izzie should be crazy.
How could he find meaning in that misery? Any joy in life?
Dr. P: Izzie and the other thrivers I studied not only maintained, but also enhanced their personal hardiness, natural happiness, capacity for healing, and unrelenting hope. All of us have these innate thriving skills, but we are often too busy surviving or languishing to be aware of and mobilize them. Too often we are not fully awake and alive until something goes terribly wrong.
Dr. P: Yes, languishing. The eighth deadly sin is “languishing.” It was originally listed as one of the deadly sins until Pope Gregory removed it from the list, but it still robs our life of its energy and joy. Languishing in my research turned out to be the silent epidemic of mistaking a busy and intense life for a meaningful and full one.
|Thrivers never accede to acedia.
They grow in hardiness, happiness, healing, and hope.
S: There is a mesmerizing story Izzie recalls in your book. I’ll elaborate a little for our readers. It’s about a lady named Mosha, the other prisoners called her “teacher.” Mosha’s story is important.
Because overcoming adversity doesn’t always mean winning, sometimes it means winning on one’s own terms. Terms that perhaps only you, yourself, can understand.
Mosha was once a dark-haired beauty. But, when Izzie first saw her, her face was scarred by beatings, she was death-camp, stick-figure thin, and a black hollowness surrounded her eyes.
Mosha was a piano teacher.
Mosha had been teaching a student when they came for her. They shot and killed her student but kept her alive. One needs classical music such as Beethoven’s, to uplift the soul and keep your spirits soaring when working in a death camp. They kept her alive.
The Nazi officers asked her to play for them.
They asked her.
They placed both of her hands on a rock. Took turns, made a game out of gaily breaking her fingers, one by one, with their rifle butts.
She could have played.
She could have given in.
Instead she defied. Music was sacred to her. She didn’t give up her sacred gift. She won on her terms. She thrived.
She held onto the sacred. And when, through the haze of misery beyond comprehension she would hear Beethoven’s music being played in the officer’s club, she still thrived … and would say in her teacher’s voice:
“Shush! Be quiet now and listen to the deaf man’s symphony. If you listen as he did, you will hear the way to freedom.” – Mosha
S: Thank you Dr. P.
Secret to Riches Revealed
Dr. P taught me the greatest card trick in the world. It’s simple but made me rich beyond belief. It’s meant to be passed on.
“Life is not a matter of holding good cards,
but of playing a poor hand well.”
- Robert Louis Stevenson
Dr. P died 3 times and came back. The 4th time he didn’t.
About Dr. Paul Pearsall
Dr. Pearsall, Ph.D., is the author of over 200 professional articles and 15 international bestselling books, including The Beethoven Factor, Miracle in Maui, and The Heart’s Code. He was a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and one of the most requested speakers in the world. He was the founder and Chief of the first positive psychology clinic in the world at Sinai Hospital. Here is one definition of Positive Psychology.
About Steve Kayser:
Steve Kayser is a seasoned Media Relations Director and an award-winning business writer. His unique approach to PR, Marketing and Media Relations has been documented in a marketing best practices case study by MarketingSherpa, profiled as a “Purple Cow,” by author Seth Godin, and featured in the best-selling books, The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott and Tuned In: Uncover the Extraordinary Opportunities That Lead to Business Breakthroughs by Craig Stull, Phil Myers, and David Meerman Scott.
Steve has also been featured in the following publications: A Marketer’s Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing, Credibility Branding, Innovation Quarterly, B2B Marketing Trends, PRWEEK, Faces of E-Content and The Ragan Report.
Emmy-award winning former CBS Journalist and author, David Henderson, named Steve one of the new “Changing Faces of PR” for 2009 and also included Steve in his 2010 book “Making News in the Digital Era.“ Steve’s writings have appeared in Corporate Finance Magazine, CEO Refresher, Entrepreneur Magazine, Business 2.0, and Fast Company Magazine – among many others.
Steve has had the good fortune to interview, collaborate and enhance awareness with many amazing people such as Dr. Paul Pearsall. Hear podcasts at Http://radio.cincom.com
Steve’s Web Sites:
Riffs and Tiffs Blog
Expert Access Magazine
For more info you can contact Steve at email@example.com