We’ve never seen heaven. But we have damn sure been through hell.
How do we make sense of hell on earth? How do we mere mortals deal with the trials and tribulations of life? The inquiry is made relevant not only by the millions who are suffering, but by the tragic case of Ellen, the daughter of a friend who through no fault of her own, recently lost her leg in a motorcycle accident.
Dante Alighieri, the author of The Divine Comedy had no doubt of hell’s existence, composition or location. He reasoned that hell is composed of nine circles of suffering, i.e., limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery; all of which are situated here on earth, right under our feet. According to Dante, he and his guide Virgil, witnessed hell first hand.
We leave the specifics of the dark realm to others. Dante’s description of Hades is just as good as any other. But there is one thing of which we are absolutely sure.
Hell on earth is as real as it gets and we are all catching it. Merely substitute the nine circles described by Dante for the ache and anguish of anger, sorrow, resentment, desperation and resignation of today and the incomprehensibility, the absurdity of life becomes all too apparent.
There are those who dull the pain of living with sedatives like alcohol and drugs. Some engage in denial, rationalization or excuse making, or enlist the aid of enablers, co-dependents and fellow victims. Others wrap themselves in the cloak of indifference, cynicism, martyrdom and fatalism or rely on emotional opiates like its Gods will or everything serves a purpose. See Harold Bloomfield, M. D. Making Peace with Your Past, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, N. Y., 2000.
But while these bromides may provide temporary relief, they offer no way out. So like Virgil, we offer the following advice for surviving hell.
First, appreciate the fact that life is a blessing even under the worst of circumstance. The universe did not have to create you. It could have easily chosen someone else on which to bestow this gift. But for some reason, it selected you. A walk through hell often clarifies why.
Second, while taking personal responsibility is fine, self-flagellation serves no useful purpose. Like it or not, a certain amount of pain and discomfort is inevitable, no matter what we do. It rains on the just as well as the unjust and bad things happen to good people all the time. An occasional walk through hell is simply the cost of living.
In addition, we sometimes catch hell not because we have done something wrong but because we did something right. There is a price to pay for standing up to a bully, protecting the weak or maintaining one’s dignity. But, it is a price worth paying.
Third, if you are catching hell, it is important to complete the journey as quickly as possible. We must not grow comfortable with or in our discomfort. We should not buy a time share or set up permanent residence there. Get in, get out and move on to a higher purpose.
Fourth, perspective and gratitude are indispensable. While there is nothing pleasant about torment and tragedy, everything is relative; all things are comparative. One man’s version of hell is another mans walk in the park.
Fifth, hell, at least the earthly version thereof, is not meant to break us. It is not designed to forever reward us for choosing wisely or to eternally punish us for choosing badly. To base decision on threats or promises is a matter of self-interest at best if not succumbing to being bullied or bribed at worst. We should instead do the right thing, regardless the consequences. A trip through hell reinforces this truth by encouraging us to embrace our better selves.
The problem is human nature. Winning is more pleasant than losing but much less instructive. What is more, we dislike anything that is disagreeable or unattractive, preferring the quick and easy. And we generally resent challenges, even those that make us stronger.
So when it comes to adversity, we focus on the unpleasantness of the process rather than the lessons learned. Instead of welcoming the accrued muscle and sinew, we internalize the pain and discomfort of the journey. Worse, we share this human fallacy with the rest of the world.
The key to surviving hell is to let go of the emotional baggage. Like a tree which drops leaves that are no longer useful, reject the anger, chaos, doubt and confusion. Abandon the shame, guilt and fear. And above all, refuse to be a victim. It isn’t easy, but it is far better to accept love, forgiveness and reconciliation than the opposite.
In conclusion, there is indeed an upside to going through hell. Adversity teaches, instructs and informs. It molds and shapes us. It builds bone, courage and resolve. It enhances our faith and fortitude.
Not only can we survive the journey through hell, but like Ellen who is more concerned with the welfare of her parents than the loss of a limb, we can become stronger, singed but forged. At least, we hope so.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum