It's an Inside Job
There’s an anonymously authored saying that goes:
Fate whispers to the warrior, “You cannot withstand the storm.”
The warrior whispers back, “I am the storm.”
If you are anything like me, you have an immediately positive and somewhat visceral reaction to this short allegory. It feels self-confident and defiant. The lesson seems obvious - that you can overcome any obstacle life puts in your way. And maybe that’s the message the author was trying to convey. But the more I contemplate the meaning of this aphorism, the more I feel it could be interpreted slightly differently, specifically as to how we view “adversity” in the context of mind fitness.
For the vast majority of human existence, legitimate mortal challenges were numerous. Life was dangerous, nasty, brutish, and short. War, famine, and disease were persistent threats. But for many of us, this is no longer the case in any real sense. Physical adversity is practically nonexistent unless we seek it out. Some people never even leave their house. And one doesn’t tend to encounter much in the way of corporeal threats while watching Netflix or dialing into Zoom meetings.
But we still yearn for some measure of conflict. Whether it’s exercise or education, struggle is how we become better. It’s how we grow and develop. It’s how we learn. This means that in the absence of a tangible “storm,” we hunt for an abstract one. And the most readily available quarry is any narrative we disagree with. It’s abundant in the endless barrage of chatter we stumble upon while scouring our social feeds. It’s everywhere in the news media. Given our constant access to such messaging and addiction to the platforms upon which it resides, these utterances become “the storm.”
If we think of ourselves as warriors, then this is an adversary we must fight. But physical combat isn’t possible in a digital arena, and a verbal altercation means we risk being proven wrong. So too often, we default to another approach - the attempt to control. This comes in the form of “getting offended,” or stating there are words that should never come out of someone’s mouth, or even doling out lists of “what not to say to a person with [insert condition].”
This trend isn’t constrained to any one segment of society or group. It’s omnipresent. Consider the below meme:
There are two problems with such an attitude. The first is what a friend of mine referred to as “giving away your power.” It’s implying that you have no control over your reactions to certain phrases, even if they are not directed at you. It’s suggesting that specific words have magical properties that you are helpless to resist or that your “getting offended” is someone else’s problem. Christopher Hitchens said one of my favorite quotes on this topic:
If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.’ In this country, I’ve been told ‘that’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument or a comment. Not to me they don’t.
When I was a kid, the most trite of cliches was “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names [or words] will never hurt me.” Adults would be wise to remember this childish idiom and make it in vogue. Because too many of us now feel the opposite way. And ultimately, this approach is essentially asserting that you can’t withstand the storm.
But the bigger problem is forgetting to heed the warrior's wisdom by failing to realize that the storm is actually within you. It’s not an external force. It’s not what other people say. It’s not what happens around you. The storm is something that happens inside your head. The only true adversity comes from your own mind. Sam Harris echoed this sentiment in a podcast:
Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that I or anyone else needs to respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that YOU should respect. In fact, it’s something that you should be on your guard for. Perhaps more than any other property of your mind, this feeling can mislead you.
Speaking as someone who has suffered from mental health issues, let me be the first to state that I don’t care what you say to me. If I take it personally, that’s my problem, not yours. None of the above expressions can automatically make me feel anything. They are not sticks and stones. They are words. And they cannot cause any harm I don’t choose to accept.
As a musician, I find a lot of wisdom in lyrics. Listening to the right song at the right time can be exceptionally therapeutic. Even if the artist didn’t intend to address my exact situation, I can make it personal and derive the appropriate meaning with my own interpretation. This particular topic reminds me of a Pearl Jam tune called “Inside Job.” It expresses the basic belief I’m espousing here and even contains some analogies to stormy conditions:
How I choose to feel
Is how I am
I will not lose my faith
It's an inside job today
The light of night
On my knees to rise
And fix my broken soul
Let me run into the rain
To be a human light again
Let me run into the rain
To shine a human light today
In fact, there is one subtle nuance of difference between my view of the storm and that of the warrior, which this song helps elucidate. The storm is not me. It’s within me and might be how I choose to feel. But I’m free to ignore it and not let it become how I am - to let it simply roll by without causing any chaos or destruction.
Trying to control what others say is a fool’s errand. All I can control is how I react. Sunny skies are possible with the right mindset. It’s just an inside job. And something I need to work on. So when things start getting dark and cloudy, maybe it’s better if I whisper:
I am not the storm.