How to Take Advantage of Any Disadvantage

I have a genetic skin disease called rosacea. My grandmother passed it down to my father, who then passed it down to my brother and me. Rosacea is characterized by episodic, superficial dilation of blood vessels beneath the face. This usually occurs on or around the nose and cheeks, and just below the mouth. It can be quite irritating when, upon extended exposure to heat, my skin itches and flushes so much that I look as red as an apple.

Of course, I could lament and complain about my rosacea all I want, but that won’t change the fact that I will always be stuck with it—at least until they are able to come up with some long-awaited cure for it. The best thing I can do for now is attempt to manage the condition every day by applying skin cream that reduces flushing and inflammation. “Treatable, not curable” is my motto.

Using my skin rosacea as an example of how we can adapt to the circumstances that we are involuntarily thrust into, let’s put things into perspective. While I could let my rosacea get the best of me and never go outside again because I just cannot tolerate episodes of flushing and inflammation, I would miss out on so much in life if I stayed home all the time. In the same vein, the mere management of our physical and mental disabilities is infinitely preferable to giving up and admitting defeat by virtue of their unwanted existence.

Allow me to share with you a story that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about.

Last week, I attended Michigan’s Adventure (an amusement park) with my father and brother. I was initially apprehensive about tagging along because I didn’t want to have to fight the 4th of July crowds. I tagged along anyway because my dad insisted that it would be the last time we’d ever go there. While I had a fair amount of fun, that old and familiar childlike excitement eluded me and was instead replaced by an almost melancholic desire to return to a simpler time.

In many respects, the trip didn’t go as planned: my dad rear-ended the driver in front of us, and wasted over $100 on fast passes that we barely used. What’s worse is that I arrived home with sunburn that itches at this very moment. Maybe I should’ve trusted my apprehension and persuaded my dad to stay home after all—I could’ve circumvented a damaged vehicle and saved $100. But I figured that if I hadn’t gone, then I wouldn’t have acquired the material to write this article.

The highlight of the trip was easily seeing a man with his girlfriend, who unfortunately couldn’t walk due to an unknown disability and thus needed to be pushed around in a wheelchair. We first encountered the couple at a water ride, and it was there the man picked up his girlfriend and carefully helped her into the canoe, leaving the wheelchair behind until they returned. We encountered the couple a second time at The Wolverine, and once again, the man picked up his girlfriend and helped her into the coaster. Most attendants felt inconvenienced from having to wait their turns for longer than usual, but I stood there in awe of this man’s enormous determination to show his girlfriend a good time.

Let’s face it, how many disabled people have you seen ride a roller coaster? Not very many I’d assume. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to tell that this was a man of initiative. He could’ve easily told his girlfriend, “Sorry honey, but I don’t want to risk aggravating your disability just so that you can ride a few roller coasters. It’s too dangerous.” The fact remains that her disability wasn’t a factor in her enjoyment. And so, whereas most men wouldn’t let their disabled girlfriends see the light of day because it’s “too risky,” this man took charge. It spoke volumes of his character and was a testament to how far he is willing to go to express the love he feels for his girlfriend.

More people need to be like this man. Stop making excuses already and take charge of your fate, or else let it get the best of you and spend the rest of your life feeling like a victim.

Depression Is Your Friend

It’s crazy, right? How can something as unpleasant as depression, the leading precursor to suicide, actually be thought of as a good buddy?

First off, I would like to emphasize that I am in no way praising deep, debilitating depression. Instead, this article is aimed at discussing depression as a form of motivation, not a psychological disorder.

When you think of a friend, what is the first thing that comes to mind? A friend might be someone who you watch a ballgame with. They might even be someone who drives you home when you’re too drunk to drive yourself. For me, a friend is someone so much more than that; someone much different than a family member or spouse.

For me, a friend is someone who attends that ballgame not because they want to get out of the house for a few hours, but because they genuinely enjoy your company. A friend is someone who drives you home when you’re drunk not out of obligation, but out of concern for your safety. Really, a friend is someone who accepts you without question, sees the value that you bring to the world, and looks out for you during hard times.

So how does depression look out for you? Well, for starters I’m writing this post with my fingers. I have a brain that thinks and reasons in order to produce the language that is responsible for the post in the first place. I have a stomach to digest the food I ate two hours ago and a heart that pumps blood to keep me alive. The truth is, depression wouldn’t exist if, along with every organ in my body, it didn’t serve some kind of a survival function. The theory of evolution suggests that our predecessors who did not experience depression were selected against and died off, while those who experienced depression lived on to spread their genes and ultimately create you and me. With that said, depression is as much a part of us as our fingers, stomachs, brains, and hearts are. It is an instrument of survival.

Then again, depression doesn’t get enough credit. We condemn it, scrutinize it, and in many cases medicate it when it doesn’t need medicating. How do you even define depression in a positive light when it is this widely stigmatized and condemnable “sickness of the mind” or worse, character flaw? Well, it’s not an impossible task.

Normal depression, and by extension grief, can be defined as a self-regulatory mechanism in which a problem is continually reflected on and analyzed with the intent of preventing it from reoccurring. It’s almost like trying to solve a math equation that you’ve been stuck on for hours in that you’ll rework the problem over and over until a correct solution becomes evident. The only time the mind-boggling math equation that is depression becomes debilitating is when episodes are prolonged, lasting for weeks and months at a time, and disrupt personal and professional relationships. At that point, you never solve the problem, you just keep staring at it and expecting something to change.

I can tell you with certainty that for every mistake I’ve made and problem that I’ve created, I never would have improved as a human being if I didn’t feel depressed afterward. There were times when I failed a test or said something extremely hurtful to another person, and afterward that was all I thought about for the rest of the day and even the rest of the week. I’d think to myself, “How could I let this happen?” and “What went wrong, and what can I do to fix this mess?”

Don’t get me wrong, depressive rumination isn’t fun. Some of the worst moments in my life were where I would become so emotionally drained, so dispirited, and so, well… depressed, that I couldn’t even move. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t play video games, and I generally couldn’t function normally. Why would anybody want to suffer through such an experience? The answer is that it can be used as motivational fuel when it is channeled into something more meaningful. I look at it this way: you could achieve every major success in the book, but by the time that one failure comes around it’s suddenly the worst thing in the world because you haven’t acquainted yourself with what it’s like to truly lose. To truly face defeat. In this manner, the low points in life help us appreciate the high points and remind us of the progress (or lack thereof) we’re making.

Occasional, not chronic, depression is your friend because it’s got your back. It PUSHES you toward improvement by notifying you that you need to make some much needed corrections in your life. And trust me, you’re better off with than without it.

The Dangers of Seeing Black & White

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the narco world, it’s that life is more complicated than you think. Good and bad, they’re relative concepts.”

Narcos (Season 1, Episode 1), Steve Murphy

I used to think colorblind patients literally saw the world in black and white, like their lives were an unending 1940s noir film that lacked in depth and quality. Later, I realized that colorblindness is actually a deficiency of the retina’s cone cells to properly differentiate between colors. It is, of course, still possible to see in black and white, but not in the way that you would expect.

Disclaimer: I take no credit for what I’m about to say here. The purpose of this article is to put my own spin on what’s been known for the entire course of human existence.

You do not need eyes to see. I was introduced to this concept when I attended therapy last year, as I wanted to get a better feel for how the process worked. I only went a couple of times because I didn’t see the value in talking about my problems to a stranger whose job was to more or less regurgitate much of what I already knew. My therapist, by her grace, brought up an interesting point that I will never forget.

She told me, “Well Marc, you seem like an all-or-nothing kind of guy.”

Her statement struck a chord with me because it identified a personality trait that I wasn’t previously aware of. It appeared that my understanding of the problems I was discussing ad nauseum was the real problem, and not external forces. Perhaps if I viewed them as opportunities and not impossibly unreachable obstacles, they wouldn’t be so problematic anymore.

I felt transformed and revitalized, but as time had come to pass, I reverted back to my age-old ways of interpreting reality. Nonetheless, my understanding of what my therapist told me that day became further solidified upon listening to the audiobook Positive Intelligence (2012) by Shirzad Chamine. There was a particular chapter in that book where Chamine referenced an ancient Taoist parable that is also my now-favorite philosophy.

The parable chronicles 5 days in a Chinese province. On the first day, a horse jumps a poor farmer and his teenage son’s fence, causing major property damage. However, by the terms of the local law, the boy and his father are allowed to keep the horse, meaning they will become wealthy and prominent. On the second day, the horse gallops back to the mountains and leaves the farm behind, yet returns on the third day with a dozen more wild horses. On each of these three days, the father dispassionately asked his son, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

On the fourth day, the boy gets violently knocked off one of the horses and breaks his leg. His father, noticing that his son is in tremendous pain, asks him once again with his usual indifferent tone, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” Finally, on the fifth day, the province goes to war, and Army recruiters arrive at the town where the poor farmer and his son live and begin drafting able-bodied young men to go off and fight. Every young man in the town is sent away to certain death except for the farmer’s son, and all because of his broken leg from the day before.

This old but gold parable led to the creation of an idea I call Noir Syndrome, with noir being a reference to the film genre that was traditionally shot in black and white. Noir Syndrome proposes that all of our anxieties originate from our tendency to view life as falling on one extreme or another without taking into account deeper meaning, contrary evidence, and alternative perspectives. All or nothing.

We’ve been conditioned to view life in this way because it is effortless and requires very little additional thought. However, this manner of thinking is dangerous in that it harbors the delusion that everything is always operating on a good-bad dichotomy, when it is anything but. Chamine talks about the same thing in his book. Again, I am not the first person to think of this, and neither was he.

How do you even define what is good and what is bad, or what should fall on one extreme end of the spectrum and the other? The poor farmer could only ever ask this question because he was wise enough to know that it didn’t warrant an answer. Technically, every “bad” thing in life is nothing more than a momentary inconvenience, while the extent of this inconvenience is the primary determinant for how “bad” it really is by our standards. Life is a double helix of sorts, and not a straight line; all good eventually leads in to bad and all bad eventually leads in to good, creating a self-contradiction of sorts since the two cannot be categorized independently from each other. They are two sides of the same coin.

You have to search for some shred of good in every tragedy or setback you experience. In fact, you don’t even have a choice in the matter. This is because if you constantly view things as the best or worst, good or bad, all or nothing, you’re setting yourself for unimaginable heartbreak if they fall somewhere in the middle. By that logic, you determine your reality by setting the parameters for how it’s supposed to look in your eyes.

Start seeing grey, and the world becomes a whole lot more colorful.