by Mark Matousek
After receiving a diagnosis of HIV and, several years later, the equally upending news that after all, he would probably not die of it, Mark Matousek discovered something about riding a spiritual crisis. In this new guidebook to keeping the psyche intact while being spun on life's roulette wheel, he talks to survivors both well known (Joan Didion, Ram Dass, Isabel Allende) and less known (a Tibetan Buddhist nun who was tortured by the Chinese, a mother who lost a toddler to kidney cancer), as well as experts in brain neuroplasticity and psychological resilience. Through their stories, strategies emerge about how to not only regain equilibrium after a serious hardship but also manage the free-floating "intuition of hidden yet imminent danger" that afflicts many of us even in the absence of major trauma.
A recurring message among survivors is that grappling with adversity has helped them understand who they really are at their deepest core—and the key is letting go of their stories of how their lives should be.
"If you're hoping for things to be other than they are—constantly wondering how or why something happened, or how to fix it—you're lost," says one of Matousek's subjects, John Dugdale, a photographer who went nearly blind and proceeded to create the most acclaimed work of his career. But, he continues, "the opportunity for transformation when we enter deeply into our experience is absolutely unbridled. It's just like nuclear power if you choose to use it properly. Once you pass through that fire, you've been smelted. You're going to come out gold on the other side."