Michael Ashcroft

March 26, 2021

The paradox of an untroubled life

”Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness... Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I read this quote in the book Building a Life Worth Living by Marsha Linehan, the developer of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, which is one of the most effective therapeutic modes of treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder. I say therapeutic because nutrition is strongly implicated.

I know that I tend towards the more vulnerable end of the spectrum in my writing and ‘content creation’. I’ve even mentioned on Twitter that I’ve had experience with depression, anxiety and yes, some mild to moderate traits of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

It’s funny, the first two of those seem fairly universal, as though everyone has either experienced them directly or know someone close to them who has. I have few qualms talking about these two.

BPD is different. At first I didn’t recognise myself in the list of traits, but worse than that were the horror stories of people who had an experience of BPD orders of magnitude worse than mine or who had been seriously hurt and made resentful by someone close to them with BPD .

That’s made me much more hesitant to share that side of things, but I’ve become much more comfortable with it as I accept that my experience is what it is and that’s okay.

So back to that Rilke quote.

It hits home because I have often been the guy that friends, family — and, increasingly, strangers — turn to for advice. I am good at seeing and navigating the inner worlds of others and, in turn, at helping them become their own navigators. This is partly why I was told I was a “high EQ manager” in the corporate world, what led me to become a coach and probably what makes me inclined to such things as Alexander Technique. There is a sensitivity there, which I have learned to contain, calibrate and direct usefully.

But it’s worth acknowledging the paradox of where that sensitivity comes from. No, I do not live untroubled among my simple and quiet words that sometimes do others good. Yes, my life has much difficulty and sadness. Were it otherwise, would I be able to find those words? I suspect not.

That paradox often gnaws at me.

How can I have the audacity to believe that I can help others while my own life is ‘not untroubled’? And, similarly, how can I be so selfish as not to help others by using the hard-earned capacities that have come from my experience?

I have learned that the best thing to do with paradoxes is to leave them unresolved — just leave them there and keep moving anyway. Trying to resolve paradoxes creates problems. Both sides can be true at once, and trying to insist that this is not the case is to miss the point, and value, of paradoxes.

Yes, my life has much difficulty and sadness. No, that does not disqualify me from helping others navigate theirs. But let me also expand on Rilke’s observation. My life is also filled with awe, love and hope. These capacities too are tools I can use for the benefit of others.

It’s not just about comfort — it’s just as much about reaching for the stars.


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