Dealing with hard times--the genuinely miserable moments, events, or long stretches of unhappy life--is a subject addressed at various spots on this website, particularly in the "Teshuva" and "Music" links. I didn't plan on adding a section devoted exclusively to the subject until I read Avivah Zornberg's book, The Hidden Order of Intimacy. It caused me to stop naively thinking I can avoid hard times just by being smart and careful. I began to live the phrase from Job: "I recant and relent being but dust and ashes." Doing so has made me happier and better equipped to cope with hard times.
Zornberg notes the Hebrew word shamar (שָׁמַר) "holds a rich ambiguity." It means to conserve, preserve, observe. It can refer to guard duty. It also means resisting the urge to depart or leave. Importantly, there is also a "future movement" of the word, when shamar means moving toward realization, expectant, feeling the way toward fulfillment. For example, when Jacob hears Joseph's dreams, we read "Jacob held (shamar) the story in mind. He waited in expectation for when it would come true." In Isaiah, we read about "a nation that keeps faith (shamar)."
The attention implicit in the word shamar is also intention. In this sense, shamar is a liberation from fixation, rigidity, and inertia, a freedom from repetitive compulsions. One keeps faith in a future yet to evolve, mobilizing a larger imagination. Shamar is a constant attunement, a readiness to respond, a posture of aspiration, a turning toward the future and its possibilities.
Crucially, for there to be shamar there must first be tragedies, disruptions, stumbles, failures, limitations, impediments, insufficiencies, unease, stupidity, wounds, slipping on the banana peel. They must be lived through and cannot be evaded. Make space for them. Shamar's optimism cannot diminish their rawness. But shamar makes darkness and despair temporary, and it teaches that the meaning of the disruption depends on what happens next, which you control to a large extent. The meaning must be imaginatively sought out.
Put another way, crises are "inherent, inevitable, perpetually repeated, constitutive of being human, part of the human reality. Much of life eludes one's grasp. Anything can happen." Life is fragile, essentially unstable & unpredictable, and may fall apart anytime. But the alternatives to shamar, to holding out hope for change, are madness, hatred, and self-annihilation, a repeated moan.
Here I must stop and ask: is Zornberg accurate in asserting madness is the only alternative? Or is it possible to be happy believing what Alan Watts said in his book The Joyous Cosmology: "life is basically just a gesture, a completely purposeless play, an action without agent, recipient, or purpose. There is no reason whatever to explain it. The present is the unfolding of a pattern which has no specific destination in the future but is simply its own point. The present does not say anything except, 'Thus!' There is no point from which to confront life or stand against it. Ego, the entity to which experience happens, is more of a minus than a plus. It is an estrangement from experience, a lack of participation, of feeling with the world. Ego creates a chronic resistance to experience which blocks the free flowing of life."
Watts is right. I believe what he says is true: there is no point from which I can block, confront, or stand against the world. As long as I’m alive I’m participating with the world. But his statements are not a helpful guide to living, especially when he asserts it is natural to see pain as no longer a problem. One cannot relax luxuriously during hard times. His ideas prod passiveness and hopelessness instead of aspiring for positive change. By contrast, Zornberg continues...
You must be able to tolerate uncertainty & the tension of waiting, to remain vigilant, to live with the unrealized possibility, to live in limbo. Shamar "runs counter to the impatient posture that can tolerate no delay." Shamar is a "waiting posture informed by alacrity, a controlled vitality, an energetic state...a forward, upward, creative movement." It waits for joy, accomplishment, meaning, laughter, beauty, goodness, sensibility. It is life in a different key, a shift in perspective. Again, the meaning of the disruption depends on what happens next, which you control to a large extent. The meaning must be imaginatively sought out. Use your linguistic power: "Anything at all may be said. Words may be combined in infinite sets. 'The limits of my language are the limits of my world,' Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote.'"
Zornberg notes "there is an existential rhythm between deconstructive and reconstructive, emptiness and fulfillment, loss and recovery. A constant dynamic keeps the two modalities in motion and contradiction. Fullness and emptiness live together. Hope is bound up with anxiety." Be attentive to both. Open yourself, clear space, and allow access to both. Take an alert, receptive stance to both, since together they constitute the human experience. Dissolve the separateness. Something in me quiets down when I acknowledge this balance.
Zornberg's best metaphor for this dynamic: the gradual opening of the birth canal requires pain and counterpressure. In order to relieve the latter, something has to open, a passage has to widen. The buildup of pressure is a result of the disruptions in life. But then there is a letting go, a softening. Using another metaphor: the hand opens, it does not clench, it relaxes its tension. Something new is born out of the wailing; the wilderness of despair can be a birthplace of creativity.
Shamar is this creativity. It offers the capacity to renew. It focuses on "what succeeds temporary darkness." It requires much practice.