The Art of Coping


Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Laurent Grenier, which is French, as you might have guessed. Over the years, I have heard many pronunciations, many variations on that naming theme. The one that struck me as the most outlandish sounded something like “Lorin Greeneer.” Upon hearing it, I must admit that I hardly recognized myself. So if you struggle with my name and you happen to live in Ottawa, Canada, as I do, you can use as a reference point the Saint-Laurent Shopping Centre that you are probably familiar with. Of course, do not forget to leave out the Saint and the Shopping Centre, since I am neither one nor the other.

Having said this, a name is just an empty sign that evokes nothing until it is fleshed out with the knowledge of whoever bears this name. Mine consequently begs the question: Who am I, and more pointedly, why am I philosophically inclined and intent on helping others deal creatively and constructively with their existential doubts, their search for meaning, to borrow Victor Frankel’s words that appear in the title of his famous autobiographical essay?

To answer this question, I must take you back almost 50 years. I was then a brawny teenager, not quite 6 feet tall, 220 pounds, built like a football player, with dreams to match. I had a passion for sports and athletics, whether they were indoor or outdoor, and whatever aspiration I entertained with the future in mind was very much in keeping with that.

My life, however, was about to turn everything on its head. On June 4th, 1974, a beautiful—warm and sunny—day, I called a very dear friend of mine who had an inground pool in his backyard: “How do you feel about a swim this afternoon?” I asked. He laughed, “Sure, come on over,” he replied. Some half an hour later, which is the time it took me to cycle to his house, I was trying a surface dive at the shallow end of the pool, in 3 feet of water. By surface dive, I mean one where you thrust yourself headlong with the aim of staying within the top 2 feet of water to avoid hitting the bottom. Problem is, I slipped, with the result that I achieved exactly what I was trying to avoid. My head hit the bottom hard and my neck snapped. Next thing I knew, my friend was pulling me above water and I was paralyzed. 

For as long as I could remember, my body had been compliant, remarkably strong, seemingly indestructible, and yet it was now unresponsive, committing a mutiny of sorts. Terribly perplexed and anxious, I shook my head left and right, repeatedly, as if shouting “Wake up! Wake up!” My body, however, remained deadly still.

In retrospect, when I think of the secondary damage that I inflicted unknowingly to my spinal cord by shaking my head so, thereby aggravating my injury and compounding the ensuing paralysis, I am compelled to challenge the phrase “Ignorance is bliss.” In fact, ignorance may dispense us from worry about the dangers it ignores, but ultimately it leads to hell, not bliss.

That said, an ambulance was called and I landed at an intensive care unit, sharing a room with a young motorcycle accident victim who, by contrast with me, was brain dead. Soon after, the neurologist who was assigned to my case came to my bedside with an x-ray of my neck. “You see here,” he said, pointing at the x-ray, “This is where your spinal cord is badly damaged, at the level of the fifth cervical vertebra. This means that every skeletal muscle that is wired to your spinal cord below this point will no longer be under your control, because the communication is broken down between them and your brain. Unfortunately, this damage is irreversible and you will remain paralyzed for the rest of your days. You will likely regain a bit of shoulder and bicep function, but little else, I’m sorry.” 

I was stunned. I understood his words, but they made no sense to me. How could I be physically dead, though still mentally alive? I mean, if the doctor was right, most everything that was dear to me and which, until then, had been my driving force was suddenly reduced to a mere fantasy, entirely beyond my reach. I simply could not bear such a dreadful thought and struggled to dismiss it. After all, however reputable this doctor was as a neurologist, he was human nonetheless, and human beings can often be mistaken. I took comfort in this reasoning, despite its wild improbability, as the doctor’s prognosis rested on solid evidence, with virtually no margin of error.

Months of healing and physiotherapy followed, but no matter how dogged my determination was in my effort to recover, my improvements were marginal at best, alas consistent with the doctor’s prediction. My denial had quite literally no legs to stand on. Reality was winning against my wishful thinking, through relentless insistence, like a wave ever renewed that hit a rocky shore, time and again, wearing it down bit by bit until it crumbled into the sea. I kept my head up, but deep down I was crestfallen.

My situation appeared dismal and hopeless, by reason of a terrible mistake: I focussed bitterly on desirable things that were no longer feasible, as opposed to focussing constructively on the things that on the contrary were still feasible, some of which I could learn to value as well. I had yet to discover and embrace these things or align my purpose with them in a creative and adaptive turn around. Part of the lesson implied in this awakening was the distinction between two essential aspects of our human nature. First and most familiar was our habitual self, our second nature, developed over time through a series of choices that shaped the very way we thought and acted. Second was our genetic, potential self, our first nature as it were. It was rather abstract, but immensely resourceful and adaptable: capable of acquiring new habits that could again become our second nature, appropriate to the circumstances. 

I needed to have faith in this genetic self, enough to muster the courage to reinvent my second nature adaptively, which amounted to a promising but also risky new adventure. The thing is, I was not ready for such a leap. I vaguely sensed that the art of living was the art of coping, but I failed to look past my attachment to the past. I lacked the wisdom to take my situation philosophically, with a positive attitude, and turn it to good account. I resorted to poetry as an emotional outlet to express grief and somehow redeem it with artistic beauty. 

This coping mechanism was a form of compensation, as distinct from one that could get to the bottom of my existential crisis and bring it to a point of resolution. Even portrayed as the sublimation of a dark, suicidal emotion, into the vibrancy of poetic brilliance, the wanting logic of compensation prevailed. This logic could be summarized as follows: I transposed my problem of powerlessness in the face of a situation I could not change according to my wishes into an expressive field of action that afforded me a maximum degree of freedom. To put it differently, poetry writing was a way of venting my profound discontent, which provided some relief, but the source of my discontent was left untouched, as toxic as ever, calling for a radical change of attitude that could drain it at last.

The word “venting” bears a relation to the steam engine, whose internal organization is comparable to a living organism. Picture that steam engine, in the context of a steam locomotive or a steamboat whose general purpose is locomotion: For starters, there is a firebox, stoked with coal, the combustion of which brings the water inside a boiler— equipped with a safety valve—to the boiling point. The steam thus generated accumulates and the pressure increases, the latter serving as mechanical energy to set in motion a piston inside a cylinder, together with the crankshaft and the wheels or paddlewheels to which the piston is connected. 

Now imagine that a foreign object blocks this threefold complex of moving parts, thereby preventing the release of steam that accompanies the normal back-and-forth motion of the piston. The steam again accumulates and the pressure increases, gradually approaching a critical threshold beyond which the boiler would explode. To preclude such a disastrous outcome, the safety valve opens and releases the excess steam. Yet, it stands to reason that notwithstanding the usefulness of this safety mechanism, it falls terribly short of a proper solution that would restore motion and allow the steam engine to fulfil its intended purpose.

We can draw a parallel between the coal that fuels the steam engine and the foodstuff that sustains the organism (to say nothing of oxygen and water), and likewise between the threefold complex of moving parts—piston, crankshaft, and wheels—that provide a means of locomotion and our twofold complex of head and limbs that enable us to proceed upon life’s journey. Furthermore, the similarity is striking between the act of releasing a buildup of steam to avoid a blowup and the act of venting my discontent before it climaxed into an emotional breakdown. Both are nothing more than a temporary expedient that leaves a lot to be desired. That is, the root problems behind these anomalies—a mechanical blockage on the one hand and a mental blockage on the other—remain unsolved. The mental blockage I am referring to was a stubborn attachment to the past, while the future stayed on hold, waiting for me to catch up. To that effect, I needed a new outlook that replaced the idea of a barren life with that of a treasure buried under the painful obvious.

It took me years of poetic indulgence before I grew weary of what essentially amounted to a feckless exercise in self-pity. This was the degree zero of my shift from poetry to philosophy, which implied abandoning a compensatory mode of coping in favour of one that promised to resolve my existential crisis. I struggled to rise above the assumed absurdity of my human condition—hanging over me like a thick mantle of dark clouds—into the light of acquired wisdom. My goal was to find inner peace at long last, plus a renewed sense of purpose and joy. 

With the help of luminaries from such schools of thought as stoicism and Buddhism, I developed the discipline of mindfulness and the spirit of acceptance that gradually opened a Pandora’s box of insights and slowly enabled a transfiguration of my wretched frame of mind into a positive attitude that turned obstacles into instruments of personal growth. In the same way, an ivy, plunged into darkness by an adjacent wall that towers over it, climbs this wall to attain a superior place in the sun, well above common shrubs and even higher than the foliage of average trees. Life is always a bittersweet mix of constraints and opportunities, and the key to happiness lies in grasping some of these opportunities, according to our tastes and talents, in order to thrive, physically, mentally, and socially to the greatest extent possible.

Thereafter, I continued writing, but instead of using this medium as an emotional outlet to express grief poetically, I repurposed it philosophically as a method of sharing whatever amount of wisdom I managed to garner. An image springs to mind, that of a man who stands alongside a steam engine whose locomotive function is broken beyond repair. “How can I avail myself of this contraption,” he wonders, “despite its relatively pitiful condition?” He then sees his ailing wife with a lung condition and cries “Eureka!” He has resolved to convert the steam engine into a therapeutic vaporizer by joining the safety valve to his house via an appropriate combination of pipes. And—voilà!— thanks to this conversion, his wife’s breathing improves. Somehow I can identify with this man.

On reflection, bearing in mind this creative and adaptive turn around, there is yet another and arguably better illustrative metaphor that warrants a rhetorical detour. I am thinking of cellular thermal convection as described by the French physicist Henri Bénard who made a career of studying this process in viscous fluids. The premise is simple: You rapidly heat from below a pot containing such a fluid, which soon begins to display cellular patterns with convective properties. That is, the molecules that are closest to the source of heat, near the bottom of the pot, scatter, thereby reducing their density and weight, relative to the other molecules that are farther from this source, which results in buoyancy and a structured upward flow. “Boring scientific trivia!” you might interject, but please bear with me. The interesting bit is around the corner. 

First, appreciate that the general tendency of any physical system is entropy or a chaotic state of thermal equilibrium. This tendency is manifest in the viscous fluid at rest, before it is drawn away from thermal equilibrium by a source of heat, which is therefore also a source of disturbance. Second, appreciate that far from equilibrium, this fluid adopts a dynamically ordered mode of being that maximizes the dissipation of heat in the form of convection cells, reminiscent of living cells. 

What is remarkable about these cells is that the initial source of disturbance, from the perspective of the chaotic fluid at rest, is turned into a source of sustenance, this time from the perspective of the fluid upon its adoption of a dynamic form of order that corresponds to a phase transition, wherein heat is integrated into a lively mode of being, so long as it remains available. The process of human adaptation is modelled on this thermodynamic blueprint, which substantially changes the value of external circumstances so as to achieve harmony between them and someone exposed to them. A perfect example of such a change is found in the art of sailing where the force of what appears to be a contrary wind is cleverly put to work, thanks to a propitious adjustment of the sail’s angle. 

My hope is that this brief example and the lengthy exposition that sets the stage for it will inspire you to navigate the treacherous waters of existence more wisely and happily.

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