Friday, 29 August 2014

How to relieve anxiety in times of adversity

The main difference between individuals who become desperate and those still keep trying despite countless disappointments is that the latter are able to imagine a positive outcome at the end of their story. When you see people turn completely pessimistic, abandon their dreams, and conclude that there is no future for them, you are witnessing people who cannot conceive of a solution to their problems.

Yet, it is easy to fall into this kind of situation if you don't keep a rational perspective of life. Unless you make the effort to maintain a healthy optimism, there is no way that you can solve your problems. Unfortunately, it happens all too often that people who are severely sick, or who are experiencing financial difficulties, lose their self-confidence, and suffer a nervous breakdown. In this way, they are closing the door to the opportunities for improvement. They are depriving themselves of any possibility of emerging as winners on the other side of the tunnel.

The main difficulty in remaining optimistic in times of adversity is that you cannot get yourself to believe that things are going to turn out right unless you make the effort to compare your situation with a similar one that has also turned out right, so that you can draw the conclusion that you still have a chance. Unless you can see that someone else has overcome similar problems, it is extremely difficult to convince yourself that you can still win. 

The crucial ability that you are going to need 

The ability to imagine a positive outcome is crucial for maintaining an optimistic attitude, which is one of the key factors for overcoming severe problems. If you allow yourself to fall into a spiral of negative thoughts, you will find it much more difficult to solve your problems. Thus it is imperative that you make the effort to maintain a balanced view of the events. You have to force yourself to look at the situation in an objective manner, so that you can increase your chances of solving your problems.

Whenever I have to speak about how to acquire this crucial ability, I always tell the story of Joseph Abbeel. It is a fascinating story from the 19th century, showing how a man can survive, and still have a good life despite massive problems, terrible reversals, and endless calamities. When people get depressed by looking at their own situation, I always ask them to compare their chances with those of Joseph Abbeel.

Abbeel lived in the period between 1786 to 1866. As far as we can conclude from existing records, he had a quick mind despite his meagre education. His mental agility is shown by the fact that, although he had only learned the basics of Latin and French at school (together with his Flemish mother tongue), he later picked up German, Polish, and Russian during his travels. He was also unique in that he wrote his memoirs in 1817, giving posterity a fascinating insight into that period of European history.

When Abbeel turned 20 years old, he was forced to leave his job at this father's beer brewery, and enlist in the French army. At the time, the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was engaged in wars all around Europe, and often resorted to recruiting foreign soldiers for his military campaigns.

Amongst other military campaigns, Abbeel was sent to fight in Austria and Germany several times, and had to serve as a soldier in the French army for ten years, without actually accumulating any money. When Napoleon lost his empire, thousands of soldiers remained unpaid. Abbeel not only did not draw any financial benefits from the war, but had to suffer all kinds of injuries during his ten years as a solider. 

The worst experience of his life 

The worst part of Abbeel's experience was his participation in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812, which turned out to be a complete disaster, resulting in the death of 76% of all the soldiers that had accompanied Napoleon.

In addition, Abbeel was taken prisoner after the war, while he was retreating through Germany. The Russians forced him, together with another 6000 prisoners, to walk back from Hamburg to Moscow, and then from Moscow to Kazan, where he was imprisoned in horrible conditions for almost three years. From the 6000 war prisoners that were taken to Kazan, only 170 survived.

To give you an idea of the extreme situations that Abbeel had to face, I have extracted these facts from the memoirs he wrote in 1817:
  • His horse was shot down.
  • Abbeel was then shot in the arm.
  • Then he became deadly sick with typhus.
  • He fell into a sort of comma, and the military surgeon declared him dead, giving orders for his burial. Fortunately, Abbeel woke up by the time he was going to be buried alive.
  • He went repeatedly through near-starvation conditions, sometimes having to go without food for two weeks.
  • He took part in battles were so many people died, and where the reigning chaos made it impossible to move for days, so that Abbeel had to spent several nights sleeping amongst the corpses of fellow soldiers.
  • When Napoleon ordered the retreat from Moscow, Abbeel had to walk two hundred kilometres on land covered by half a meter of snow.
The difference between many of those who died and Abbeel is that he never gave up. When he was taken prisoner by the Russians, he escaped three times. When he was starving, he still found ways to procure food, whether it was by eating horse meat or horse blood, or by mixing flour with water to make dough, which he ate uncooked. 

He never gave up his will to survive 

Abbeel never gave up his will to survive even in the most terrible circumstances. If you take into account the number of soldiers that were taken prisoners, Abbeel's chances of survival were only 2.8%, which is an extremely low figure, much lower than the survival chances of most people who are diagnosed with cancer nowadays.

After Abbeel was eventually released from his imprisonment in 1815, he had to return to Belgium by walking all the way through Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany, with no money in his pockets. Upon his arrival in Belgium, he did not despair, and refrained from complaining about his penuries. He was then 29 years old, and had no savings, and no profession. He had just wasted ten years of his life by fighting wars for which he did not care at all.

Abbeel managed to survive against incredible odds in terrible situations. There are no many situations in life where someone's chances of survival are only 2.8%. Frankly, I don't know personally anybody in such a situation. Even the impoverished people often reported by newspapers and television are seldom in situations as terrible as that of Joseph Abbeel. 

The reason why Abbeel managed to survive is because he was a always able to picture a positive outcome to his story. He never gave up, and he never despaired. When he wrote his memoirs in 1817, he recalled many critical situations with humour and satire. His memoirs do not tell the story of a bitter man wronged by the world, but the story of a man who has learned from experience that you can still survive when everything turns against you, provided that you continue to look for opportunities, and make the best of what is available. 

It is possible to rebuild your life from scratch 

After Abbeel returned to Belgium, he managed to rebuild his life. He did not go back to his original profession of beer brewer, but found a clerical job in Kaster, a small municipality. Ten years later, he became a house-master in a primary school, and during his last years, he worked as a municipal tax collector. Abbeel died at the ripe age of 80 years, decades later than the great majority of soldiers that had taken part in the Napoleonic wars.

Is your situation as hopeless as that of Joseph Abbeel? Are you facing threats that are so severe that make it impossible to imagine a positive outcome? Are you assailed by problems so terrible that prevent you from conceiving the idea of winning?

I very much doubt it. I have already seen too many individuals give up their dreams for no good reason. I have already seen too many people fall prey to the negative messages of the media, their family, and their friends. Do not fall into this trap.

You have to make the effort to remain objective and rational despite your problems. You have to force you to figure out a way in which you can still come out a winner. You have to compare your chances of solving your problems with the 2.8% survival chances of Joseph Abbeel.

It is only by imagining a positive outcome of your situation that you can start to turn things round, but beware that nobody can conduct this thinking process for you. You have to stay awake and alert, thinking about your options. You have to keep looking for new ideas and new knowledge, so that you never fall prey to despair.

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living

[Text: copyright John Vespasian, 2014]

[Image: picture taken by John Vespasian, 2014]

The 10 Principles of Rational Living