The Beethoven Factor

Three Qualities of People Who Triumph Under Adversity

Paul Pearsall

In 1801, at age 31, Ludwig van Beethoven had become suicidal. He lived in poverty, was losing his hearing, and wallowed in the depths of withdrawn despair and hopelessness. Twenty-three years later, utterly deaf, no longer suicidal, and, instead, energetically creative, he immortalized Schiller's life-affirming "Ode to Joy" in the lyrical chords of his Ninth Symphony. His transposing of Schiller's inspiring words, "Be embraced all ye millions with a kiss for all the world," reflected his remarkable ability to triumph over the tragedy of his hearing loss. He had triumphed over his tragedy to be able to construe the world in ways that can forever help all of us feel the joy he experienced by hearing his miraculous music.

Beethoven can be seen as one of the superstars of thriving. He did not suddenly transform himself from someone living in helpless despair to a person living in constant joy and elation. Like all ordinary thrivers, he continued to suffer through many terrible times and remained prone to dark moods throughout most of his life. In an 1801 letter to his friend Karl Ameda, he wrote, "[Y]our Beethoven is having a miserable life, at odds with nature and its Creator, abusing the latter for leaving his creatures vulnerable to the slightest accident.... My greatest faculty, my hearing, is greatly deteriorated."

For years, Beethoven heard mostly humming and buzzing until, for the last and very productive years of his life, he became totally deaf. Through it all, however, his ability to creatively construe his situation allowed him to develop an increasingly more encompassing and adaptive explanatory style.

In another letter Beethoven wrote to a friend five months after the letter to Ameda, he said, "You must think of me as being as happy as it is possible to be on this earth--not unhappy. No! I cannot endure it. I will seize Fate by the throat. It will not wholly conquer me. Oh, how beautiful it is to live--and live a thousand times over!" His words capture the essence of how a deaf man learned to listen by continuing to lead a life as magnificently enriched as it was difficult.

A Thriving Life

I refer to thriving as the "Beethoven Factor" not only because of the gifted composer's magnificent victory over adversity but because his invincibility also reflects the life-span view of thriving. When I speak of thriving as rising to the occasion, life itself is the occasion to which I refer.

Beethoven himself was far from being an enlightened guru, and though he thrived through his problems, he remained an ordinary man with ordinary vulnerabilities and liabilities. He never summoned the courage to tell others of his deafness, writing in one of his letters that he was "unable to say to people, 'Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.'" He often tried to deny his problem and deluded himself by visits to all sorts of charlatans and quacks who claimed they could cure his deafness. As ineffective as these visits were, they also may have offered Beethoven brief spurts of hope and even moments of healthy self-delusion that bought him time to keep composing.

Quantum leaps of thriving sometimes happen. However, most thrivers rarely recognize their invincibility in a short period of magnificent epiphany. Like Beethoven, they have periods of dismal lows and unrealistic highs. Through it all, thrivers maintain the key characteristic of thriving.

My interviews with thrivers indicate that they tend to have very strong immune systems. Even at the worst of times, they seem aware on some level of the rules by which it functions.

The "Let It Go" Rule: Thrivers seem to know or have learned to let their emotions flow naturally rather than cling to them. They know that it's not being afraid, depressed, or anxious that destroys their lives; it's allowing themselves to get stuck in these emotional states. Beethoven's statement that he would not "endure" his pain but that he would not allow it to "wholly conquer" and dominate his life reflects his unconscious awareness of this rule.

The "Have Faith, Calm Down, and Don't Despair" Rule: Thrivers have faith that no feeling will last forever and that there is always an equally strong opposing emotion for every emotion we experience. Like most thrivers, Beethoven seemed to adopt an increasingly more inclusive and adaptive view of what constituted happiness. Even as he struggled with his loss of what for him was his most important sense, he still wrote that he was "as happy as it is possible to be on this earth."

The "Suffer Wisely and Cheer Up" Rule: Thrivers sense that suffering is essential for a truly authentic life. They seem to know that even when things seem at their worst, they are much stronger than they think and will be stronger on some level because of their pain. Beethoven's statement, "I can defy this fate even though there will be times when I shall be the unhappiest of God's creatures," exemplifies his grasp of how the innate psychoimmunity operates and that he seemed to understand the dynamic nature of emotions.

The next time you hear music composed by Beethoven, I suggest you do what my grandmother recommended and listen to how it reflects the ebb and flow of his emotions and his evolving joyful view of life and nature. Listen for how the changes in volume and complex intonations and movements seem to be an ode to thriving, a reflection of his lifelong effort to become creative through his suffering. Listen for how music created by a deaf man might help you strengthen your own psychoimmunity.

How Thrivers Do It

Although we live in a modern world that encourages ever higher expectations, thrivers have a highly flexible accommodative style. Their explanatory systems allow them to not only increase but also sometimes significantly lower their expectations. Creativity and high-level adaptability can come from this kind of downshifting of goals just as it does from rededicated upshifting.

In a culture that keeps encouraging us to get more, do more, and say yes, thrivers seem to be able to "have less, do less, and say no" when their thriving depends on it. One thriver I interviewed was a 16-year-old boy who football coaches felt was destined to be a star. The night before he was to sign his letter accepting a full football scholarship to a Big Ten School, he was paralyzed for life by a drunk driver. He told me, "All the other guys in rehab are talking about their commitment to walking again. Not me. I'm learning how to accept the fact that I won't and figuring out ways I can have a great or maybe even a better life because I'm in a chair." It seemed clear that this courageous young man had lowered his aspirations but realistically raised his inspiration.

Beyond Pollyanna

Thrivers are not Pollyannas. They are not blindly optimistic and are far from showing the often irritating feigned cheerfulness that can result from trying to comply with popular psychology's version of positive thinking. Their invincibility derives not just from their discovery of what they are able to do about their problems, but also from their acceptance of what they may never be able to do.

Any joy that thrivers gain through their suffering derives not from newfound super-strength, but from establishing a better and more comfortable mental match between the possible and the impossible. One of the thrivers I interviewed paraphrased a well-known positive thinking phrase, "The possible we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer."

After failing for years to regain her ability to walk after being struck by a car, this thriver said, "We have to learn what's possible, but impossible we have to learn to ignore. Like the other patients, I tried to be Ms. Positive Thinking at first. People sort of expect you to put on your game face and tell them that you will walk again, but I knew I wouldn't. People with my kind of injury just don't. I didn't want to waste my life like all the heroes around me by going after an impossible goal. I wanted to live my life now, not be on a mission that I knew would not succeed no matter how many people applauded me. I wanted to get back a normal life by figuring out as quickly as possible what was and was not possible for me in my case. As soon as I finally figured out what was going to be possible and how much I was willing to give to get to that point, I started to deal with my crisis in my own way."

We do not thrive because we finally accomplish the impossible or overcome tremendous obstacles. We thrive because we mentally remain engaged with our problem long enough to find meaning that helps us accommodate to whatever happens to us. We do not make miracles just by rising to new heights. We live a wonderful life by searching for the miraculous in whatever life has made for us. The young woman in the wheelchair said, "I hate it, but the whole thing about not feeling anything below my chest is sort of really a kind of ugly mystery to me. Somehow, I've got to figure out how I'm going to fit this into my life and not let it run my life."

A Consciousness Catalyst

For thrivers, traumas in their lives seem to provide a mentally motivating mismatch between their currently operative life theory and life's reality. This causes what psychologist Jean Piaget called "disequilibration," or a dissonance between what our life theory predicts should happen and what actually does. For thrivers, this dissonance is a consciousness catalyst that causes them to rethink their current theories and beliefs about the world and their place in it. The conscious acts of creation that constitute thriving require an accommodating mind, one that is constantly changing and made wiser by the events that challenge it.

Thrivers seem to know when their current explanatory style is too limited to handle their current crisis. They adjust it to create a consciousness of lowered expectations if they must and higher hopes when they realistically can. A consciousness of adjustable levels of expectations can be one of the most important parts of thriving.

Don't expect a personality transplant due to your thriving. If you are a generally joyful, happy person, you'll be much the same way no matter what crisis you face. If you're a perpetual grump and general annoyance to those you live with, you will probably still be that way after you thrive through your problems. The Beethoven Factor does not refer to a total personal makeover, only to the capacity to think things over and come out stronger and more adaptable from the process.

Like Beethoven, thrivers know how to weave and keep reweaving the fabric of their lives even when forces keep tearing at it. By constantly recreating their own consciousness, they are able to do what Beethoven did. They remain the creative composers of their own consciousness.


This blog is excerpted from "The Beethoven Factor," by Paul Pearsall. The full version is available in the January/February 2004 issue, In the Eye of the Storm: Bessel van der Kolk Has the Trauma Field in an Uproar.

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Topic: Anxiety/Depression | Trauma

Tags: Challenging Cases & Treatment Populations | challenging clients | dealing with depression | Depression & Grief | disability | external motivation | grief and loss | happiness | happy | happy people | how to be happy | injury | learned optimism | loss | motivation | positive thinking | thinking positively | treating depression

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