Chapter 1, Life’s Problems
If you’re living, you have, you are currently, or you will face problems, or as I like to call them, “challenges.” From newborns trying to find their way in a brand new world to teenagers battling with peer pressure and feeling misunderstood by everyone over eighteen to adults dealing with unexpected career changes or the loss of a loved one to seniors coping with the challenges of living in an aging body, no one leaves this world untouched by challenges of their own making or someone else’s. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re delusional.
The truth of the matter is that the only people who aren’t facing challenges are dead people.
Challenges have never arrived on my doorstep wrapped with a bow and gift tag that reads, “Inside you’ll find the best thing ever!” And rarely, if ever, have opportunities for personal growth appeared as a joyous experience. I don’t know about you, but with the arrival of every situation that eventually enhanced my character, my world was rocked with rumblings like those of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, if you know what I mean.
I’m talking game-over situations with no sign of immediate or future benefit. If those life lessons arrived draped in all their future glory, I would have welcomed them with open arms and gleefully marched the road to self-actualization in peace and harmony, arm in arm with my fellow human beings, singing Kumbaya every step of the way.
Right. Well, guess what. Life doesn’t work that way.
I’ve noticed that character-building life lessons tend to embed themselves in hard times and are only recognized as beneficial long after the end of Hard Knocks 101. I probably grasped the concept after the fact because I focused my attention on dealing with the problem at hand, all the while trying not to make bad matters worse.
These challenges fall into five categories: cognitive, emotional, physical, external, and societal. These categories aren’t limited to a specific gender or age as they transcend all demographics and thrive on being equal opportunity disrupters.
As you may have guessed, challenges in this group deal with thought processes: specifically, the way we perceive ourselves, things we believe about ourselves, judgments we make about ourselves, and overall attitudes we hold about ourselves. These opinions are shaped by our interactions with others and how we interpret their reactions to us. Positive beliefs form a favorable self-image, and we feel capable and worthy. But, when we believe negative messages about ourselves, we feel insecure about our abilities and our place in the world and form a negative self-image. It doesn’t matter if the beliefs are exaggerations of the truth, accurate assessments, or even under-representation; we are what we think we are.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands 1in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Feelings, moods, reactions, sentiments, call them what you like. We all have them. And we’re all subject to them. Some of us bend to the slightest whim of our emotions; moving from the heights of joy to the depths of depression in the blink of an eye. Others express their feelings with the emotional range of the Great Sphynx of Giza and seem to have their emotions dialed down to a level that would be the envy of Mr. Spock. Thankfully, most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes.
So that we’re on the same page, let me elaborate on the word “emotions.” I define emotions as strong feelings in response to a person, thing, or situation. At first glance, you might think emotions serve only one purpose: to express how you feel; but if you look a little deeper you’ll see that emotions have several functions.
Emotions prepare us for immediate reaction, influence thoughts, and motivate behavior, all without having to process what lies before us. Alligators can be found in just about every body of fresh water in the state of Florida, and they’ve been known to stroll through neighborhoods every now and then. If I stepped outside my front door around dawn or dusk, the time gators are most likely to be out stretching their legs, and saw a 500-pound, eight-foot-long gator moseying about on my lawn, there would be no need for me to ponder how long I could watch it before it got close enough to rip off one of my limbs. Fear would kick in, overriding reason, and I’d head back indoors tout de suite. No deliberation necessary.
On an interpersonal level, emotions give social signals to others. When meeting new people a smile may appear on our face. They signal the nature of relationships and provide the necessary incentives for desired social behavior. That loud and obnoxious neighbor coming over to visit and to eat all of your munchies during the big game again? Greeting him with a furrowed brow and your arms akimbo, if executed properly, can be a good indicator that he’s not welcome. Negative emotions are strong motivators, as well as inhibitors, with residual effects that last for years. Have bad memories of that rogue elephant at the circus? It could be years before you ever go back.
Positive or negative, emotions can color our thinking and motivate or inhibit actions. Can you remember a time when your emotions inhibited you from taking action?
Most people would agree that challenges, like experiencing the onset of a life-threatening illness, suffering a traumatic injury, or living with a disability, bring with them a high level of anxiety. Sickness, trauma, and infirmity can turn and an otherwise “normal” life upside-down. Activities once taken for granted suddenly seem far from reach or they slowly fade from view. In order to cope with physical challenges, individuals and their loved ones find it necessary to adjust their way of life to accommodate new physical demands. And in some instances, all semblance of normalcy can be stripped away overnight.
Let’s not forget caregivers to those stricken with illness, injury, or disability. Many times, the primary caregiver pushes their own needs to the background in order to tend to the unexpected needs of the loved one.
Disabilities bring with them their own set of issues. Take any one of the dozens of forms of dwarfism for instance. As a short-statured person, I don’t consider myself disabled per se, but dwarfism is recognized in the Americans with Disabilities Act as a disability. For me, my forty-eight-inch height is simply a part of who I am. For all of my life, I’ve found it necessary to devise workarounds to accomplish day-to-day tasks—i.e., having off-the-rack pants shortened to the appropriate length for wearing, asking a stranger for a hand in retrieving items from the top shelf in the grocery store (as that’s where all the stuff I love lives), using a step ladder to reach the burner dials on my stove—as needed, so I can about the business of living my life. These accommodations are nothing new. It’s not as if I had been living the majority of my life at a height of five feet ten inches and then awoke to find myself at a much shorter height or wheelchair-bound.
In all these instances, a shift from what was to a new normal due to the advent of a physical challenge can bring with it great stress. And in the case of people living with disabilities, one person’s common is another’s crisis.
This category, the broadest of my five, includes circumstantial events that may be considered common to mankind. Everyone at some point in their life will face one or more of the following: their marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a divorce, a relocation, a job lay-off, living through a natural disaster, or family tragedy.
Even under the best conditions, these challenges can throw the most stoic people for a loop and have the potential to derail lives. I’ve experienced external challenges (a couple of lay-offs, a couple of relocations), but by far, the most traumatic challenge of my life thus far has been the death of my father. His was the first funeral I attended. In the days preceding his funeral, I was numb through and through. And while I wept openly at the graveside, the residual effects lasted for years . . . unbeknownst to me.
You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.
— Lou Holtz
We’ve all met people who have held opinions about who we are, how we think, or how we should act based on no factual reason or actual experience with us. I, personally, have encountered a panoply of individuals who have held preconceived notions of who short-statured people are or what we’re all about without having had any previous experience with Little People. Most misconceptions center around the notion that the quality of life for short-statured people is substandard or that we have a diminished sense of self-worth.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Preconceived opinions not based on reason or actual experience about a group of people is more commonly known as prejudice. Age, race, sex, religion, and sexual orientation are typical types of prejudices, but if you can lump a group of people into a category, there’s a good chance there’s an accompanying prejudice against them.
A friend of mine, who worked for a high profile company in New York, accepted a promotion and transfer to Tokyo. He welcomed the change in locale and radically different corporate culture. A few months into his new assignment, he noted that while his coworkers displayed support of his leadership by verbally agreeing with his directives; when it came time for actual follow-through, his subordinates responded with taciturn resistance. Eventually, my friend came to understand the reason for his coworkers’ reticence in following his leadership: he was viewed by his Japanese team as a “gaikoku-jin” or “gaijin.” Literally, an outside person, a foreigner; someone who is a non-Japanese person.
If you’re bristling at my friend’s plight, you’re reacting to discrimination; the unjust treatment of a category of people. The criteria for bias was nationality. Would that no one have to face prejudicial thoughts or discriminatory actions on individual or systemic levels, but unfortunately such is not the world we live in.
Lest you think your life is untouched by discrimination or prejudice, let me give a few words of sage advice from my grandmother: keep living.
There you have it, all of humanity’s woes neatly separated into five clearly defined categories —
- Cognitive challenges — matters related to the way we think about the world, others, and ourselves
- Emotional challenges — moods and feelings that develop in response to situations or people
- Physical challenges — concerns arising due to the onset of an illness, injury, or disability
- External challenges — physical occurrences that take place our in immediate surroundings or environment
- Societal challenges — issues including, but not limited to, prejudice and/or discrimination
Now that you’re more familiar with these challenges, I’m sure you’re wondering how do you fix these situations so you can move on to a fully self-actualized life brimming with love, joy, hope, peace, unicorns, and rainbows?
The answer? You don’t.