How to Survive Life’s Rough Patches

"Long and Rough Road" by CT M is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Long and Rough Road” by CT M is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“What is happening to my life?” said Dorothy, exhaustedly sipping a triple espresso across the table from me. “Did I do something to deserve this?”

By “this,” Dorothy meant a series of crises that had recently hit her like a gang of meth-crazed prizefighters. Her husband had filed for divorce—a week after she lost her job, the same day she was diagnosed with diabetes. Then her best friend moved away. Now Dorothy was caring for both her aging parents while paying a divorce lawyer way more than she (or her retirement account) could afford. “I’m not sure I can go on,” she told me. “Why is all this happening at once?”

“Well,” I said, “according to probability theory, random events can run in streaks. It’s like patterned disorder, and in nature it creates beautiful things.”

Dorothy looked as though I’d poured mouse droppings into her coffee. “That’s your explanation? My screwed-up life is just beautifully random?”

“It’s the most rational explanation,” I said. “It’s not my explanation.”

“What is?”

I shrugged. “I think you’ve hit a rumble strip.”

Then I laid out for Dorothy what I’ll now lay out for you, just in case your own current luck makes Job look like a lottery winner. I don’t know why catastrophes sometimes come in clusters. But experience and observation have convinced me that these patches of awfulness may be purposeful and, in the end, benevolent. If you’ve had a run of horrible luck, you can tell yourself you’re being tortured or punished. Or you can decide you’re being steered.

Life Is a Highway

Imagine that your true self is your essential consciousness, the part of you that still feels what it was like to be you ten years ago, even though most of the atoms in your physical body have been replaced since then. Suppose you set out to experience the adventure of human life by inhabiting your body. And that this essential you sees your life as an epic road trip. Destination: inner wisdom, love, and joy.

Now let’s suppose you forgot this destiny at birth. In its place you created a mental map of the life route you preferred—passing through good health, perfect romance, and professional success on the way to a cheery, painless death (say, being struck by a meteorite while bicycling at the age of 110).

Unfortunately, your essential self very probably has in mind a stranger and more exciting road, featuring spooky tunnels, scary precipices, and sharp curves. Which means your destiny isn’t at all what you think you want. Which means that as you drive along the road of life, there will be times when your essential self plans to turn even though you most certainly do not.

Behold the Rumble Strip

If you’re paying attention to your environment, relaxing and following the road, detours from your mental map may be unnerving but not catastrophic. Maybe you planned to become a dentist and marry your high school boyfriend, only to realize that (1) you hate staring into other people’s mouths, and (2) you actually prefer women. So you quit dental school, break up with Mr. Wrong, and find work and love that suit your innate preferences.

Or not. This is a best-case scenario, and such scenarios virtually never happen.

What virtually always happens is that when destiny swerves, we proceed straight ahead. We step on the gas, ignoring the fact that we feel trapped in the dead relationship, stifled by the secure job. We go blind to the landscape and the road signs, steering by our assumptions about what life should be, as unaware of those assumptions as a sleeping driver is of her unconsciousness.

Et voilà: rumble strip.

Suddenly, everything’s shaking, jolting, falling apart. We have no idea what’s happening or why, only that all hell has broken loose. It gets worse and worse—until we wake up, see through our false assumptions to the deeper truth of our situation, and revise our life maps. This isn’t punishment. It’s enlightenment dressed as chaos.

My Rumble Strip

I hit my first rumble strip while driving hell-for-leather toward my third Harvard degree. In six memorable months, I was almost killed in a car accident, in a high-rise fire, and by a violent autoimmune reaction to an accidental pregnancy. I had incessant nausea. And fibromyalgia. And lice. By the time the baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome, I was pretty much done for.

It took all that to shatter my core assumption: that achievement and intellect gave my life its value. Only after my world seemed to completely fall apart did I learn the lesson my true self needed me to learn: that no brass ring is worth a damn compared with the one thing that makes life worth living—love. Duh. You’d think I’d have figured that out earlier. There were signs absolutely everywhere. But until my first rumble strip shook me awake, I never even noticed them.

I’ve had other streaks of awful “luck” since, but none has ever caused as much suffering. That’s because I’ve developed a rumble-strip coping strategy. If your own luck seems weirdly cursed, try this:

Navigating Rumble Strips

STEP 1: Hit the brakes.

When Dorothy told me over coffee that she wasn’t sure she could go on, I secretly rejoiced—not because I wanted her to suffer, but because I didn’t.

“Yup,” I said, trying not to sound smug. “The rumble strip is telling you to stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Everything,” I told her. “Except what’s necessary to survive. Eat. Sleep. Go to the bathroom. Make sure your children, pets, and sick parents eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. If that’s beyond you, ask for help. Not forever. Just for now.”

This time Dorothy looked as though I’d asked her to stab a baby panda, but she was too exhausted to argue. That was a good thing. When you feel so beaten down that you can’t sustain normal activities, it’s time to stop trying. Surrender, Dorothy.

STEP 2: Put your mind in reverse.

From a place of minimal functioning, you can back off the rumble strip—by reversing the assumptions that steered you onto it in the first place. These key assumptions are clearly marked with intense negative emotions: fear, anger, sadness. Such feelings are big red WRONG WAY signs. Back away from them.

To help Dorothy do this, I asked her which, of all her tribulations, was causing her the most pain. Topping her very long list was the thought “My marriage has failed.” So that’s where we began shifting Dorothy’s mind into reverse.

“Give me three reasons your marriage actually didn’t fail,” I said.

“But it did!” Dorothy muffled a sob.

“Well, was any part of it good?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Did you learn from it?”

“I learned so much,” said Dorothy.

“And is every learning experience that comes to an end a failure?” I asked. “Like school, or childhood, or life?”

“Well, no.”

Dorothy paused, thinking. Then her shoulders relaxed just a little. Ta-da! She’d begun reversing a painful assumption.

To be clear, I wasn’t trying to minimize Dorothy’s pain or plaster a creepy happy face over her legitimate sorrow. I only wanted her to alter her beliefs enough to catch a glimpse of a different road, where a marriage could succeed as a soul adventure even if it didn’t last forever.

Try throwing your mind into reverse right now. Think of the worst, most hurtful thing that’s happening in your life. Now think of a way this horrible thing might be good. The more rigidly you hold on to your assumptions, the harder this process will be. But with practice you’ll improve—and trust me, it’s so worth the effort. When life gets rumbly, being able to reverse an assumption turns out to be the handiest skill imaginable.

STEP 3: Find and follow smooth terrain.

Because rumble strips are one of the few experiences that will make sensible people hire a life coach, I’ve been privy to hundreds of them. And I’ve noticed a very consistent pattern: At the point when someone sees through a false assumption, the road of life suddenly turns smooth. Instead of crazy bad luck, bits of strangely good luck start showing up. They’re small at first, inconspicuous. Never mind—slather them with attention. Your attention is what steers your life, and it’s much more pleasant to steer by focusing on the good stuff.

In Dorothy’s case, the moment she reversed her assumption that divorce always means failure, the waitress brought her a cupcake, said, “On the house,” and walked away. Later that afternoon, Dorothy found an abandoned New York Times unfolded to an article titled “The Good Divorce,” which helped and encouraged her. Then she ran into a former boyfriend she hadn’t seen in years. During their brief interaction, he told her how much he still respected her, and how valuable their “failed” relationship still was to him.

Little miracles like this will begin happening to you whenever you turn toward your right life, even if you’re in the middle of a rumble strip. If you stop everything you think you should be doing, surrender to what’s actually happening, reverse your assumptions, and steer toward the glimmers of light that appear as your old beliefs shatter, the small miracles will turn into big ones. Eventually, your good luck will seem as incredible and mysterious as your bad. Once more you’ll be asking, “Did I do something to deserve this?” Only this time, the question will arise from a sense of overwhelming gratitude, not overwhelming pain.

By the way, the answer to that question is yes. You did do something to deserve this. You had the courage to keep traveling the precarious road of life. You deserve to be guided. And rewarded. And, when all else fails, rumbled.

14 replies
  1. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    I have spent the last week feeling lost and despondent after my boyfriend unexpectedly broke up with me, right before my first round of exams for graduate school. Your newsletter arrived in my inbox this evening, and this article called out to me. Reading it has given me much solace and comfort. Thank you.

  2. Krista Olson
    Krista Olson says:

    I recently paid attention to a rumble strip that had been going on for years, when it finally felt like the ground beneath me was being ripped open to reveal Hell. I did the unthinkable, surrendering all of the good things about my life situation (my wife’s beautiful qualities/essence, my fur- and feather- and wool- kids, my home in the country, my financial security, my future plans, my pride in a sense of loyalty and “doing the right thing”). I did possibly the bravest thing I have ever done by walking away from a terribly codependent relationship that had turned from red-flag to nightmare. I am 40 years old and grieving the biggest loss of my life – but also relieved from the chaotic mess that was the past 5 years. It’s a very odd feeling, and sometimes almost unbearable. But Martha Beck, you continue to remind me that my intuition is always right, and that everything – EVERYTHING – is working out for the best. Thank you.

  3. Alexis
    Alexis says:

    This is very timely. I haven’t necessarily hit a rumble strip, but things do seem very hard lately. Last summer, we experienced a lot of serious issues with neighbors, and had to move abruptly. I have four small children, and unending housework, and for some reason even though I thought that I had made progress on this I can’t stop eating sugar and empty carbs. I feel kind of lost, but too tired to do much about it. It’s great fun, too, and there’s lots of positives about my life! I’m NEVER lonely for one thing.

    Anyway, my point is, why am I being my own rumble strip by doing self-destructive things like eating nonstop or drinking too much caffeine and not exercising or doing the housework in the proper order, ect. ? How do I break free from this? Your books have helped me in so many ways.

    Thank you.

  4. Jenny Antrobus
    Jenny Antrobus says:

    Wow. Imagine experiencing the adventure of human life by inhabiting your own body! Ha when I read this I realised I was doing something wrong. I have been trying to avoid the bumps or fortify my vehicle with better suspension instead of taking notice and slowing down or backing up. Thank you for the great analogy – time to rethink some issues and take the bumps.. Even better when I am out driving my car every speed bump or rumble strip will remind me to take stock of me.

    Even just thinking this has made me feel way better this afternoon!

  5. Tina.Ali
    Tina.Ali says:

    Thanku for your practical n humorous advice!! I live in Islamabad Pakistan. We have issues like yours. Both my girls are in the states n I’ve told them to read your articles. I absolutely love them. And thanks!!!

  6. Bekezela Mkhwanazi
    Bekezela Mkhwanazi says:

    Finding my way in a wild new world,dealing with my rhinoceros have been a roller coaster. l have been to near death situations but still it looks like the high way is steep, with no promise of finally arriving where l want to be without ever realising lam there.Thank you somuch.l for the inspiration and knowledge you have given me through your book.Finding my way in a wild new world,you are my rock day l wish to meet you in person Martha.

    • Toni
      Toni says:

      Dear Kate

      Your heartbreaking circumstances are too serious to brush off with a few meaningless words of comfort. During this period of great loss, and dependent upon the support of those closest, you are having to deal with your husband’s search for oblivion through alcohol.

      At a writing group I met a woman who read a beautiful story about her son. She had admirable strength and conviction as she read her poignant words. When I had the opportunity to speak with her, she told me she now runs a support group for parents of suicide. Perhaps there is a similar group in your area?

      Please know there are people who care about you.

    • Jeff
      Jeff says:

      I’m sorry to read about the things you are dealing with and while my story is different, it helped me to realize that everyone faces their own life traumas which cause us to ask “Why did this happen to me?” or “What good can come from this?” I’ve been dealing with my own set of life traumas for some time now, and believe me, I have asked those same questions. I won’t pretend for a second to know what you are going through, but I went through my own ordeal pretty much all alone and my days were very dark for quite some time. I was so devastated by what happened to me, that I was forced to walk a long path of introspection and rebuilding. It was a long hard path to walk alone, but when I got to the other side of the darkness and found my way back into the light, I felt compelled to journal my path and note some of the shortcuts that I missed along the way…in the hopes that just perhaps, my story could somehow help others who were dealing with their own life tragedies to find a shorter road to their recoveries. Although I have not yet published my writings, I have shared them with a few people who I happened to cross paths with. They said it helped them immensely…and that gave the suffering I went through both meaning and value. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t “fix” my situation, but it did make it more bearable and showed me that there was indeed some good to be derived from what I went through. Perhaps as you work though the process of dealing with your situation you too might be able to learn some things that will allow you to help others dealing with similar circumstances, and that can give some meaning to your suffering, which can ease your pain. I’m no psychologist or anything, just a guy who has learned a few painful life lessons. Sometimes life throws things at us that are just too big and heavy to deal with and we don’t always get to “understand” why these things happen. When this occurs, if we can find some way to help others with any of the lessons we learn, it at least gives some “meaning” to the experience, and that can make us feel better. My prayers go out for you and your family.

      • Ginnyanne
        Ginnyanne says:

        I would love to read what you’ve written, Jeff. I lost my husband to brain cancer at the age of 59 in September 2014. Thanks.

    • Linda
      Linda says:

      When my then husband was drinking himself into oblivion and driving me into depression, I found experience, strength, and hope by attending Al-Anon. Enduring the pain and grief you feel requires support from those who have endured it, too. May you find peace.

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