“His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remain — why he did not instantly disappear.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
All of us will face difficulty in the course of our lives. From birth until death, it is more like a series of crises that drives the rhythm of living and disrupts our existence, shakes and shapes who we are.
Whether or not you believe in the possibility of a greater power, you soon have to admit that most of it is out of our control. What triggers a crisis can be anything; what puts an end to it is often unrelated to the catalyst.
Nevertheless, the way we react to trouble when it occurs can greatly influence the likely outcome. And this pattern is reinforced every time we encounter turbulences.
Two very different coping mechanisms can be used: what you are or who you are.
When we need to go back to what we know, what we feel comfortable with, we revert to our turf, our patch. Retreating to our origins, we seek reassurance in the familiar and the similar. We renew our sense of belonging to a community and a context that once defined us. We reinforce existing bonds, recreate rituals and signs of recognition. We revisit and insist on the common rules of membership. This coping mechanism might also provoke an over-emphasis on difference, what differentiates us from other groups, tribes, communities, organisations, whether real or fantasised.
An alternative coping mechanism is to strike out as an individual, a node, trawling for a new idea or attribute that might help us overcome a problem or a situation we don’t know how to deal with. We seek the unfamiliar and the singular, acknowledging our inherent insufficiency. We invent new tools or theories. We reach out to the unknown, multiply interactions to build, seek new associations and different forms of partnerships. It might change our very self, impact and transform the core of our identity, making us unrecognisable to the people and the environment we once knew.
How, then, to manage the inevitable tension between the two, between your position in the tribe, the hierarchy, the pre-established order, and you as an individual in all your faults and glory? How to keep on being oneself in this dynamic equilibrium?
That might just be our ultimate challenge.