flowing motion

3 ways to help your group live happily during hard times

Posted on: October 19, 2009

A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace. (John 3:16-21)

As a youngster, I was baffled by the Biblical advice that there is a time for all everything under the sun. A time to be born. A time to die. It seemed perfectly obvious to me. But then I was a literal child.

Positive psychology and the seasons

A big message coming out of the positive psychology school and the poets like David Whyte, who write about work, is that we must take each season of our life in turn.  It seems though that even positive psychologists struggle to understand the ups-and-downs of life.

Let me try by using the seasons.

It is autumn now in the UK

Summer officially ends in the UK this week. The trees have already turned. The paths are strewn with leaves of all colors and it is cold inside – because it is not cold enough yet to turn on the heating. If we were still farmers, our crops would be harvested and stored, and we would have fodder in the barn for the livestock to survive the winter.

Live life on its own terms

It is here that we find the message. We have to live in summer on summer’s terms. We plant and we reap and we store to provide for the winter.

And we must do the same in winter. We must live winter by the merits of winter.

I am still a ‘noobe’ in the northern hemisphere so let me talk about winter where I came from. Our winter was all of three weeks and days were a short 11 hours! So we lit a log fire in the evenings and gathered with friends and went to bed early to get warm. On weekends, we gathered again to have barbecues in the gentle mid-day sun. We might take advantage of the rainless days to do some maintenance. But mainly we didn’t. Winter was a time of rest and recovery before the growing season came around again.

Up here in the northern hemisphere, I think we are expected to be a lot more productive here. People use summer to play and the long winter nights to work.

Ups-and-downs of contemporary life

The old agricultural seasons help us understand the ups and downs of life and what it means to explore each for what it is.

Of course, we hate the downs. We don’t want them to happen. We are terrified they won’t end.

And the ‘ downs’ are real. I hate it when people tell us they are in our mind. People die. Economies collapse. We aren’t stupid or insane. These are real events. Very real. Very distressing. I hate the Nietzsche expression that what does not kill you makes your stronger. I don’t hate a lot of things but I really hate that.  Downs are real. Please, don’t insult me by telling me they are in my mind.

Winter is not the absence of summer

But they downs need to be understood in their own terms for what they are.  Just as we understand winter as winter not the absence summer. Winter comes before summer, and after summer, and must be respected for itself.

Happiness is respecting the winter of our lives

That is happiness. Happiness is respecting the quieter times, and the harder times, and seeing them as part of the pattern of life.

Then, and only then, do we have the heart and the courage to explore them, not to love them, but to do what is required of us, respectfully and gently, and patiently.

Then we can be in them without rushing them to end.  It is pointless to try to make them end. They will end in their own time, just like winter.

We’d do better to accommodate ourselves to their nature and live within them. And live well within them.  Just as we don’t have frolics in the sun during winter, we may not be bubbling with joy in the hard times. But demanding they end does not end them sooner. It just makes them harder.

The trick is to live winter on winter’s terms.  I am pretty clear that it is easier to do if you understand winter as something that precedes summer and follows summer.

Does the analogy of the seasons apply to our non-agricultural, frenetic, confused modern lives?

When it is less clear that our suffering “is not our fault,” or when it is not clear when our suffering will end, I’ve found it helps to find a mentor who might explain the objective situation.   It also helps to live through hard times in a group. Because much of our fretting is really a cry of “why me?”, when we are all in it together, at least we do not have to protest that the hard times are part of our personality.

When we are leading a group in times of suffering and distress, I’ve found 3 things help.

  • Bring together people who suffer in the same way.

    When they hear each other’s stories, they’ll sort out in their minds what is a feature of the situation and what is in their minds. But don’t tell them to cheer up or that it will all be alright!  Dismissing their hardship is insulting and confuses them more.

    • Assure them that you will be there for them and live your promise.

    Listen. Engage eye contact. Be interested in their story. When they hear themselves telling their story and they see you still listening, they’ll calm down, a lot. Life will still be hard but you won’t have made it harder. They know they have you at least.

    • And celebrate what goes well.

    Don’t pick on one small thing and say that the life cannot be hard if that one thing went well! That is also very debilitating.  They do not need their reality dismissed or tell feel an impossible distance from you.  Just give them the space to talk about what is going well.  That reinforces your relationship and you will hear more about what goes well. See! Easier for you too. 🙂

      Be a warm, companionable log fire in the winter of our lives?

      Understanding why bad times is part of happiness is tough, and living through hard times happily is tougher

      I hope using seasons helps you understand the issue.  And that the 3 forms of aid for your group are helpful. They are classical prescriptions from positive psychology.

      And of course we can ponder why we made happiness so hard to understand in Western thought when we began with the right advice in the Bible!  The philosophers can help us with that!

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