The Beethoven Factor

The Beethoven Factor

The People Who Thrive in the Face of Extreme Adversity May Surprise You

By Paul Pearsall

January/February 2004

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 He lived in poverty, was losing his hearing, and wallowed in the depths of withdrawn despair and hopelessness.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.…

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