“We all have a personal pool of quicksand inside us where we begin to sink and need friends and family to find us and remind us of all the good that has been and will be.”
“Making the best of things is… a damn poor way of dealing with them.
My whole life has been a series of escapes from that quicksand.”
Rose Wilder Lane
We all encounter setbacks in our lives. Some people call that ‘life.’
The positive psychologists just call the setbacks “obstacles” as if they were some hurdles you just learn to either leap or get around.
In other words … it is assumed if you stick to your guns no setback is a dead end but rather simply a speed bump.
In other words … we are offered some simplistic discussions about overcoming obstacles.
If you really really think about this … this advice is kind of nuts.
You may have to think really hard to come on to my side of this argument.
You may have to work hard because as soon as you are old enough to comprehend words you get bludgeoned with advice and wisdom with regard to ‘overcoming obstacles.’
In its most simplistic form it is uttered as “if you believe, you can overcome anything” or even the famous “it’s not the mistake that matters it is what you do with that mistake.”
You get pummeled with things like this:
“Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it; where there is no struggle, there is no Virtue.”
“When you start living the life of your dreams, there will always be obstacles, doubters, mistakes and setbacks along the way.
But with hard work, perseverance and self-belief there is no limit to what you can achieve.”
I don’t doubt the sincerity of this advice but what all of this trite wisdom, mostly offered by wealthier & whiter people whose setbacks are slightly different … okay … exponentially different, then not only the everyday schmuck but those who are in more vulnerable environments seems to overlook is that A setback is manageable … persistent setbacks are a whole different game.
I love virtue but after a while you cannot sustain yourself, mentally and physically, on virtue alone when faced with persistent setbacks.
What I mean is that we treat setbacks as if they were like a cold … with a little time and some fortitude and some chicken noodle soup you can overcome it and move on.
But sometimes setbacks are like a virus … this virus is more like ‘persistent setbacks.’
And, yes, this is different than what I call “quicksand” or “quicksand setbacks.”
Quicksand setbacks are more often in a defined period of time and comes to fruition mostly in a helpless unraveling before your eyes.
It’s like in a football game where one fumble leads to an interception which leads to the other team running a punt back for a touchdown. Everyone fights as hard as they can … but the setbacks stream in a way that drives you deeper and deeper into a hole. Most times quicksand setbacks stop and depending on the quicksand you are in a deep dark fucking hole or just a hole <or something in-between>.
A hole is a hole. It sucks.
But most times if you do get your shit together, get your head on straight and maybe get a little help you can get out of the hole <regardless of how deep it is>. And once you get out of a quicksand hole you actually find you have learned some stuff and … well … most times you see future quicksand and avoid it.
And then there are persistent setbacks.
They are brutal.
You face a setback.
You pick yourself up, recover and get going again. And maybe just as you get going again … well … you get another setback.
This one hurts a little more because you knew you had invested and you knew you had done it right … and you still got screwed again with another setback.
You figure … what the hell … I did it once and I can do it again and you pick yourself up again and get going, recover and you are starting to put the last setback in your rear view mirror and … doh … another setback.
This one hurts. Hurts bad.
But … you know you have no alternative but to get up, try again and get going.
This time is a little different though. This time you are a little more tentative.
Maybe even doubt a little more. You still put energy into it and you are working hard but this time your head is more on a swivel.
And then another setback happens.
Most will get up and go again. But this time doubt is your companion and while you are trying your best … you are most likely not really your best.
And then another setback happens.
This is where the trite positive ‘pick yourself up’ people sort of get things wrong.
It’s not that you don’t have the desire … you just have lost hope that you will ever get a break or that it will finally be someone else who will have a setback and not you.
I read this quote somewhere:
“Time to bet on yourself, big, huge, gigantic bet on your genius and abilities to change the world for the better because nothing is going to stop you, no force is going to hold you down or get in your way and make you lose your inner motivation again.”
That sound good … really good … but persistent setbacks are a whole different game. You can be motivated, you can bet on yourself and all of those things <which are usually necessary for any success> but … well … what happens if you have to keep on going back to the well again and again and again?
What happens when Life just seems to provide one more setback after you have just recovered and gained some momentum for the last setback … which you had done after the setback before that one and … well … you get it.
There is only so much anyone can take before they get tired … start having doubts … and then simply lose hope.
Everyone can pull themselves together after a setback.
A quicksand setback is a little trickier but depending on deeply you sink … most people can pull themselves together.
But persistent setbacks? Whew.
You aren’t looking for a big break … you are just looking for A break.
When in a persistent setback cycle … it is relentlessly exhausting.
Your plans all seem to not go as planned.
You can do your best, and it may actually be pretty good, and it can still fail.
You can be really smart, have a smart idea, articulate it smartly, and it can still be rejected or ignored.
You can work harder than anyone else and pour your heart & soul into something and it can still go unnoticed.
And all of that gets exponentially harder to take with each ongoing setback.
In addition … persistent setbacks take on a darker hue if you start looking around you and see mediocrity winning and rising and some of the least qualified not facing the setbacks you are.
I did some research.
And I found how we deal with setbacks depends on how much control someone feels they have over a situation.
The study found that changes in certain brain areas were related to persisting with goals after encountering setbacks.
Participants more often persisted with their goals, choosing to try again to earn the same academic degree, when they perceived they had control over a setback than if they perceived that they did not have control over a setback.
What’s more, activity in a brain area called the ventral striatum was related to persisting with goals in cases where the setbacks were controllable. Participants who showed greater decreases in brain activity in the ventral striatum when they encountered a controllable setback were more likely to persist with their goals.
On the other hand, changes in a brain area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were related to persistence when the setbacks were uncontrollable. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is involved in regulation of emotions, and the new study suggests this brain area helps people cope with negative emotions in order to persist in the case of uncontrollable setbacks.
In other words … when setbacks are uncontrollable they affect us in a more emotional way.
Yup. When persistent setbacks seem to continue in ways that are out f our control … well … they fucking kick the shit out of you mentally.
I say that because I think most of us overlook how persistent setbacks affect the mind.
And while I just outlined how I believe it affects an individual … there is also an effect on the people around you.
Say you are a parent and you are in this doomed cycle of persistent setbacks.
As a child that is all you see. That is all you hear about. That is what you start thinking Life is more like than what you see on TV with regard to ‘work harder than anyone else and your dreams can come true <or you can do anything you want>.’
Let me tell you what I mean by showing you some research numbers I just saw.
Among the dozens of research studies post 2016 election I found some number about the working class and education that made me sit up a little and think about this whole ‘persistent setback’ issue and how … if it is affects a swath of the population long enough … can affect their larger attitudes.
In an analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic 54% of white working-class Americans said investing in college education is a risky gamble … this includes a whopping 61% of white working-class men <white working-class voters who held this belief were almost twice as likely as their peers to support Trump>.
That is bad. But it gets worse.
This belief is even more prevalent among white working-class Americans under 30.
This belief means that they are not buying into the idea that if you do work really hard, if you do study and go to school, you will be able to get ahead.
In my persistent setback theory we have an entire swath of America who has given up hope that they can ‘overcome the setbacks and get ahead.”
“The survey shows that many white working-class Americans, especially men, no longer see that path available to them. … It is this sense of economic fatalism, more than just economic hardship, that was the decisive factor in support for Trump among white working-class voters.”
<Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI>
I don’t really want to discuss Trump voters and white working class people today but I do want to make a point about persistent setbacks and how they affect people’s attitudes.
Black, white, Asian, American Indian, whatever … persistent setbacks are an equal opportunity hope killer.
Any setback sucks. I don’t care how old you are … a setback is a setback and depending on where you are in life a setback can be crushing.
All the positive encouragement to pick yourself up and get going again kind of misses the mark. I don’t offer a solution today I am just making a point and bitching.
And all the bitching aside.
Everyone just needs to recognize that setbacks come in all shapes and sizes, not all setbacks are created equal, setbacks can be deceiving in their appearances and if you don’t recognize all that you run the risk of missing what someone else is enduring with regard to persistent setbacks.