“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster…”
A short essay on crises in life
The poem of Rudyard Kipling If hanged above the desk in my room. Next to it, I had posters of rock bands and sports cars. Poetry was not part of my interests then. Instead, and like many other boys my age, Hard Rock and fast cars defined the identity I was trying to carve out for myself, although I neither played any musical instrument nor possessed an automobile. Despite this fake identity — influenced mostly by TV and friends — , something touched me in Kipling’s poem. In retrospect, I think it was the mix of idealism and affection of a father addressing his son, felt at its peak in the last two verses of the poem:
“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Deep inside of me, I aspired to become that ‘Man’. The poem gave hope to my tumultuous teenage mind in constant conflict with my parents and the life I had. Back then however, and later as an adult, I did not seem to understand all verses and the one that mostly kept resonating in my head in times of harshness was:
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster
and treat those two imposters just the same”
How could triumph and disaster be treated the same? How could they both be imposters? Triumph (or winning) was implied in what I was taught by my family or at school and highly valued in our society.
At home, my parents rewarded success and sanctioned failure. At school, though catholic, getting high grades was what counted at the end of the day. Love, Jesus’s main message, did not help passing from one class to another. Love did not matter in order to be acclaimed by teachers or the school principal. Your grades did. In our society, people who made it rich, regardless if it was legal and legitimate, or not, were admired as winners.
One could say though that our country Lebanon, was undergoing a civil war (1975–1990) and in such a life threatening environment, winning was a question of survival versus being annihilated and losing everything. But winning is not a particularity of the Lebanese society, as I came to know it under different forms in my new homeland Germany and in the many other countries that I regularly visit from Japan to the US.
I cherished Kipling’s poem, reaching out to it when life seemed too hard, only to go back my way again, trying to win every battle I could, fearing any possible failure, as soon as my woes retreated. Only later did I realize that some wins I enjoyed were actually losses, many others were pure luck and plenty of failures I dreaded were in fact hidden chances. I came to know as well that I have spent too much energy on worthless wins and shied away from opportunities fearing possible losses.
I am using the term winning, but the concept is often described in words like ‘growing’, ‘achieving your goals’, ‘being successful’, etc. This drive has helped improving the standard of living for most people in our modern history, at least for the fortunate ones far away from war zones. The difference between the harsh life of our grand-parents and the relative comfort of our own, is just a proof of the potency of such a drive.
Though the concept of winning may vary from one person to another, there are common patterns that the majority of people, companies, and countries try to follow. When times are good, scales varying, we as individuals aim for a high education, a thriving career, promotion and status, seeking to earn more money every year, buy a fancy car, and if things are well a house larger than the one before. Getting married and having beautiful children are on the to-do-list, and if we are very successful, we might consider divorcing and repeating the experience with somebody who is younger or richer, sexier or seemingly more understanding.
Companies do not escape the growth party. When sales and profits are booming they build bigger headquarters, buy their competitors, create new positions and hierarchies, write big mission statements on their websites and their office reception walls, tolerate inefficiencies and care less about their customers and workforce than they do about generating revenue.
On a much larger scale, countries do the same. They launch superlative projects, spend on weapons, make impressive military parades and showcase their country with their happy inhabitants on CNN and Twitter. They do not seem to mind the growing social dissent or the rising environmental problems…
The motto for everybody is: “Who doesn’t progress, regresses.” For the lucky ones, life continues as we feel important to be perpetually busy. We seem to enjoy climbing the ladder of success. We might complain here and there that time flies, that we can‘t do all of what we have wished to do. In a way, we are never completely satisfied. A sense of emptiness lingers in our mind. We have imagined the trip of life to be more rewarding. A voice in our mind is whispering; I am not happy. This voice gets louder as we become older. It would wake us up in the middle of the night or turn us to all sorts of addictions to things or people; that we would call “enjoying life”.
What applies to individuals applies as well to companies and societies. Soon one realizes the futility of the growth path, visible in the inner resignation of workers, the social unrests and the deteriorating environment.
Everybody settles however with the pragmatic wisdom: “We should be satisfied. It could be worse.” Then, the unexpected happens. We face a big loss on our ‘promised path’, be it on a personal, company or country level. Something throws us out of the comfort of our routine. This something could be an unsurmountable difficulty or even a life-threatening situation, a crisis, a pandemic for instance. The shock is painful. Life is suddenly unfair to us, we ought to believe. We have worked hard and done everything right to deserve the life we had planned. It is our right to be healthy, have a comfortable and secure life, regular vacations in exotic places, profits in our companies and flourishing economies. An event suddenly threatens our plans, those of our company or our country.
While many problems in life disappear by themselves, some seem to want to stick around. We ignore them and hope they will be solved by themselves or by somebody else. We seek refuge in the abundant distractions of our modern life, but these problems are still there and are very real. We hang on to our dreams of ‘triumph’ and resist to shift paradigms and change course. We fall into the victim role blaming others or ourselves for our misfortune. In a way, it is always easier when someone is to blame for our problems, or when Bill Gates or the Chinese are conspiring against us.
Companies and countries face similar deadlock situations. Solving these requires strength of character and personal sacrifices; virtues rarely found among leaders who made their way to the top by playing the winning game.
Ignoring change will only make suffering stronger. In the events of the Corona pandemic, millions of deaths were recorded, many businesses had to shut down, and our liberty of movement was confined. Adding to this is an increase in divorce rate, domestic violence, and alcoholism. We felt fragile, insecure and powerless. Whoever tried to ignore that reality made things worse to himself and others. It wasn‘t easy to remain positive in the midst of this unexpected global emotional storm.
The pandemic though shattered our empty dreams of more and more. It shook us out of our routine trance and forced many to question what we define as ‘triumph’. It also brought along the possibility to self-reflect on what is important in life, at work and in our society. A new mindset could be born, alas not in the comfort of sticking to the past.
Unwelcome events will continue to affect us negatively as long as we hang on to the past and refuse them. The quote from Carl G. Jung couldn’t be more true: “What you resist, persists”. The changes could have transformative effects though when we accept them. When we have the humility not to pretend to know all the answers. When we ask our egoistic mind, obsessed by success and failure, to hold down its guns for us to be able to see clearly and listen closely. Crises are crossroads that could lead either to more suffering or towards transformation.
After a crisis, an individual might find a more meaningful life journey than before. A company might discover a growth that contributes to society. A country could evolve towards more social cohesion and a sustainable environment.
I started working on this essay as I was preparing a presentation for our international customers, all facing the uncertainties brought by the Corona pandemic. My thoughts drifted voluntarily away from numbers and the obsession of ‘winning’ that has been constantly driving us. I ended-up reflecting on my own path, that of my children unfolding, and that of people and companies I know, all facing their challenges. I hope this reflection gives me, and others, the courage and patience to meet life as it comes, and evolve through it.
I like to believe that transformation is possible when we have the audacity to embrace the new, be it ‘triumph’ or ‘disaster’, and to let go of the false assumptions of what makes triumph a Triumph and what makes disaster a Disaster.
If you liked this article you might like more of my writings under: walidfeghali.medium.com