We mostly notice it when we’re losing it, already at the edge. Overburdened camels observing the arrival of one. more. straw. We gird our loins, call out the reserves, hope for a second wind (or a third or a tenth). Once more unto the breach, dear friends!
Medical literature describes babies who don’t gain weight as “failing to thrive”. Maybe the positive description would be “babies who cope”. Just coping: not ideal, just the best one can do right now.
I don’t disparage the courage and fortitude of “just coping”. It is always a genuine accomplishment to come through adversity, no matter what a scramble it’s been. In heroic mode, Nietzsche wrote, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” What he forgot to add was: what has made me stronger damn near killed me.
At its furthest extreme, coping is a desperate struggle against despair itself. You’re reduced to sheer endurance, perseverance, will power. You put your head down, set one foot in front of the other. You resort to magical thinking, invent small targets to draw you forward. Whatever it takes to get through.
This strategy is a problem when it cuts you off from the shifting world. It’s a kind of fundamentalism. You put your head down with a snapshot of the world in your mind’s eye, locking it in place, sure that any new information could only confuse the situation or make it worse.
To cope: “to prove oneself a match for; to contend successfully” and also “to strike, come to blows, encounter, engage”. Derived from the Greek kolaphos (“a blow with the fist”), it is related to “coup”: a “brilliant stratagem or success”.
This is the other threshold of the experience of coping. To feel our strength tested and proven in struggle. To be a contender! To seek out challenges, to thirst for engagement, to grapple, take risks, to be knocked down and jump back up. To be able to cope with anything. Indeed, to thrive. There is joy here.
So what makes the difference? Luck seems to have something to do with it. I can cope when my resources are at least a match for what I’m up against, but we know that both resources and vulnerabilities are unequally distributed in the world. Attitude, beliefs and expectations seem to have something to do with it. One person glides where another staggers. (But there is a temptation to magical thinking here as well: as if a positive attitude were a prophylactic against hardship, or, conversely, that we have brought our hardship down upon ourselves.) Ingrained habit certainly plays a role.
I think the idea of engagement might be key: to learn to be present, fresh and alert in each moment, to express in life – with life – the skilfulness of the martial artist, the flight of a jazz solo, the disciplined intensity of tango. In the Cape’s harsh environment, fynbos expresses a thousand ways of beauty.