For some people, suffering is temporary. For others, life itself can be a long series of painful blows. However, experience shows that recovery is possible even when people seem to be at the end of their tether.

But what creates resilience? What is it that gives people the ability to persevere in the face of adversity? Do they have a hidden power, a super will that overcomes all obstacles? Or does the answer lie in their ability to develop their own mechanisms for defeating the demons within and without?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.

Why me?

We live in a world where, no matter what we do, we cannot avoid suffering. Loss, disappointment, fear, or separation are common to all of us in one form or another.

It is true that some seem to suffer more than others. Of these, many are able to keep a smile on their faces no matter what, seemingly driven by some special inner strength. We meet them not only in literature (Pip in Great Expectations or Remi in Alone in the World) or on the big screen, but also in everyday life. What makes them special is their refusal to become victims of unfortunate circumstances. What makes them rare is the difficulty of achieving this goal.

The most common response to suffering is rebellion, marked by the inevitable question “Why me?” When overwhelmed by problems, most of us succumb to negative emotions. We also tend to experience denial (of emotions, of reality), resistance to new ideas and solutions, and obstinacy in not learning our lessons.

Even when going through such a phase, the heroes among us seem to face hardship head on, helped by seeing obstacles as opportunities for growth and development.

There is research to support the validity of this approach. A 2003 experiment by researchers Carver and Scheier shows that failures during tasks did not prevent participants from completing their tasks, although the obstacles they encountered caused negative emotions such as anxiety, uncertainty, regret, and the like.

Although the study captures a narrow dynamic on the subject, the mechanism could apply to other areas of life on a much larger scale.

As clichéd as it sounds, we could say that the same mechanism is found in people who, despite frustration or discomfort, know that failure, trials, and suffering are stages in an open-ended process.

Such an open-minded approach is also at odds with the fatalism with which some people dress up less fortunate everyday experiences, believing that they have no control over the course of events, that they are doomed to misfortune or condemned to a life of deprivation and unhappiness. They end up making choices that save them the trouble of trying to find alternatives to what is going wrong, but also deprive them of happiness.

A road to nowhere

If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere, said Frank A. Clark, an American lawyer and politician.

Obstacles can’t always be overcome, but whenever we face what seems to be an impossibility, backup plans can be devised to get us closer to where we want to go.

A first step in the right direction is to take no more steps (forward). Behavioural psychotherapy specialists refer to a method by which we can regulate our emotions when we are overwhelmed by life’s adverse, unmanageable circumstances: STOP. The acronym sums up the four steps recommended in a crisis situation:

S – Stop!

T – Take a step back!

O – Observe what’s going on inside and around you! 

P – Proceed mindfully!

Basically, the method teaches us how to let go of the burden of those moments when all seems lost, so that we can look objectively at what is happening in order to make the best decisions and achieve an outcome as close as possible to what we originally expected:

  • Choosing to stop allows us to avoid reacting under the impulse of fear, anger or helplessness; it gives us the opportunity to avoid saying things we will regret, or things that will hurt ourselves (or others), and to avoid losing control.

Paradoxically, it is the decision to stop that helps us move forward, reducing the risk of abandoning a plan, an idea or a person because of obstacles.

  • Choosing to step back reveals the bigger picture, alerts us to seemingly insignificant but important details, helps us reassess where we are and prepares us to look for alternatives.
  • Choosing to observe our own thoughts, feelings and emotions, as well as what is happening outside, opens up a new way of looking at the situation. Through observation we become aware of both our weaknesses and our strengths and can better understand how to use our resources (both personal and external) to our advantage.
  • The decision to act cautiously is the barrier we put up against rash behaviour, whether out of habit, convenience or inertia; it allows us to be responsible and mature, and to think twice before saying or doing something against our true interests.

Weapons we take into battle

Every obstacle we face generates automatic responses based on past experience. So to take the necessary steps towards change, we need to be flexible, creative, and adaptable to the new. This means challenging ourselves to break out of the patterns that lead us to what we perceive as disappointment, lack of opportunity or even outright failure.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can use the experience we have gained over time when it proves to be a valuable source of learning. Past difficulties can be the best teacher for overcoming obstacles. The important thing is to know the weapons we take into battle.

Research shows that spirituality correlates with our level of happiness and therefore with our ability to cope with life’s challenges.

It is also worth noting that we can reconcile such theoretical recommendations with our own life principles by finding guidance in our own system of values and beliefs. Many studies show that spirituality is closely linked to happiness and, by extension, the ability to cope with life’s challenges.

In biblical proverbs, for example, Christians can find many teachings on effective “strategies” for overcoming adversity.

  • “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil” (Proverbs 4:25-27).
  • “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9).
  • “The desire of the righteous ends only in good, but the hope of the wicked only in wrath” (Proverbs 11:23).
  • “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
  • “A person’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can anyone understand their own way?” (Proverbs 20:24).

From such teachings we learn valuable lessons such as determination, perseverance, maintaining good intentions towards others, taking responsibility for decisions made, or the need to give meaning and significance to paths in which we did not have a say.

Regarding this last point, psychology also speaks of an essential point that separates those who give in to problems from those who manage to rise above them by translating their difficult experiences into a purely personal note. It may be hard to believe how a cancer patient, a war survivor, a parent who has lost a child, or someone who is unemployed, without savings or a home, finds the motivation to move on and make sense of the losses they have suffered. But perceiving the hard things in life as happening for nothing or for a reason is what makes the difference.

For nothing, or for a reason?

In an article in Decât o revistă (Just a magazine), Oana Sandu tells the story of a mother who “navigates the uncertainties of autism and the missing links of the mental health system to get her child back on track.” In her daily struggle to give her son every chance at an independent life, she clings to the message her sister Eliza sends her almost every morning: The clouds are your friends.

In what context can darkness be useful, if not when it reveals light, hope, and the strength to overcome obstacles? In what situation can a person who is suffering say that they feel blessed by God?

Beyond the strength of character or the stubbornness not to give up in the face of obstacles, “superheroes” are like this because of their faith, but also because of the people around them.

Difficult as it may seem, Ana-Maria Ciaușu, a 44-year-old woman diagnosed with cancer, is among those who have done just that. In an interview with Adevărul (The Truth) a year ago, she said she considered herself “not lucky, but simply blessed by God.”

“I shared my illness with my friends, with some of my friends, because, by the way, when you have a disease like this, you discover that you don’t have as many friends as you thought,” says Ana-Maria.

The involvement of her family and friends has supported her in her fight—emotionally, but also through practical interventions, because everyone has taken on a role in the healing process.

People who are alone, isolated or misunderstood don’t have the same chance of success as those who have real connections with others. As Brené Brown, an American author known for her research on shame, vulnerability and leadership, concludes, a lack of connection damages us: “We break. We fall apart. We grow numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. There are certainly other causes of illness, numbness, and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.”

Often, the thought of being alone in the midst of the storm hurts more than the storm itself.

“Pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). It is never too late to learn how to build good relationships with those around us; how not to rebel in the face of suffering, or to rebel in a useful way; and how not to become victims of unfortunate circumstances.

It is never too late to learn how to persevere and to keep going despite obstacles.

Genia Ruscu has a Master’s Degree in Social Work Counselling.