One of the greatest natural phenomenon studied by oceanographers is called a rogue wave — also known as a freak wave. Rogue waves are considerably dangerous for a number of reasons: they’re rare, unexpected, and tremendously powerful.
The moments before a rogue wave are just fine. Everything is in order. There are stable water conditions. And then all of the sudden, without warning, it hits — a wave out of nowhere with the power to flip and strand the crew of an ocean liner.
There are no warning signs for a rogue wave — that’s what gives it the name “rogue.” That’s what makes it so unnerving. One moment everything is going along fine, and then the next — everything and everyone is drowning.
In my experience, life, like the ocean, works this way sometimes. One day, everything is going just fine. Everything is in order. The conditions seem good. And then all of the sudden, without warning, it all comes crashing down. Like the end of a long Jenga game you thought would go on forever. One piece is pulled and there goes the whole thing.
What’s so frightening is that these crashes can come out of nowhere. While you may be able to predict some wave occurring in the future — while you can conceptualize that bad things will happen, you cannot predict the severity or design. That’s just part of life.
And so when it all comes crashing down, we don’t know what to do. We are completely blindsided by anything that seems out of the ordinary (which really just means out of the realm of our previous experiences). We don’t know where to start picking up the wreckage.
All we know is that there we are — stranded in the middle of the ocean, searching for a lifeboat, wondering what the hell just happened.
It is in these moments that we are faced with choosing who we are and who we intend to become.
We are challenged by our ability to see and move beyond. To reveal our true character. To work harder or give up.
So, what’s the difference between a person that rides a metaphorical rogue wave to shore and one who drowns? What does the person who survives think, feel, and act like?
Ultimately, it would seem: our experience of life is in direct correlation with how we choose to frame what happens. Of what meaning we assign to certain events. And of how we respond as a result.
There is no other way to survive darkness than to believe, at a cellular level, that you can, must, and will make it through. To ground yourself in reality, to dig in, and put in the work.
It’s the hardest work you’ll ever do, but it’s also the most rewarding.
The work starts with what we choose to focus on the moment we feel the wave crashing down around us— To stare down the barrel or to avoid it? To activate this thing or to feel permanently immobilized?
It’s true — life comes for the jugular sometimes. There is immense injustice in the world. And you will take the brunt of it sometimes.
But promise me this: when life beats you down, remember that you have a strength inside of you — a strength that can’t be faltered with. Use that strength to go through your pain, rather than to avoid it.
Because it is only in choosing to go through that we can make the world a better place and experience our true nature.
There are at least 1,000 ideas that may help you in the wake of a substantial crash, but these three are a great place to start. If you can catch yourself, if you find the strength to use remember these ideas, if you can use them to dive into the edges of your pain, you’ll be well on your way to shore.
And that is all you can hope for when life comes crashing down.
1. You are going to die someday.
Yes, I know that’s morbid. Yes, I know that’s not all that helpful to someone who’s feeling upset and unearthed. But here’s the thing, my friend, you are going to die… so you might as well live.
In this moment. Right here.
You might as well use this experience as a window into understanding who you are and what you were put here on this planet for. If you look at it right, this is the greatest opportunity of your life. You have the chance to strip everything down and build it back up — as you see fit.
For as Chuck Palahniuk writes in Fight Club:
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything.”
Maybe this is your last day on earth. Maybe you have a few thousand more. I’m not God. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that for every day you live, you are one day closer to your death. Your diagnosis is terminal. You can only head in one direction. And I’m sorry to tell you — you aren’t some Benjamin Button carbon copy.
You’re you. You’re getting older. You’re learning. And that’s better.
Don’t you want to explore while you have the time? Don’t you want to figure out why you’re here? Don’t you want to experience the highs and the lows? Don’t you want to realize what it means to be human?
That’s what you have the chance to do now. You have the chance to use your pain as a vehicle to become everything you are capable of being.
2. Other people have survived this (and worse) with fewer resources.
And if they can do it, why can’t you? Are you really that weak? Of course not.
Since humans have existed (which I understand is a timeline that is still up for intense debate), we have been experiencing suffering. Searching for food, shelter, and water. Trying to effectively communicate with each other. Experiencing every travesty imaginable. Going through heartbreak, abuse, loss, and death. Trying to find the meaning of life beyond mere survival.
There is an unquantifiable amount of human suffering that has gone on in our collective history. There are things still going on in this world that we can’t even imagine.
This fact doesn’t lessen our pain, it doesn’t make it “okay,” but it does help us see and believe that we can not only survive but thrive because of it. Even when life comes crashing all the way down.
Let’s take my story. In my early 20s, in the span of 1.5 years, I graduated college, found out my dad had gone outside the marriage, lost my mom after her decade-long battle with breast cancer, “came out” to some unsupportive folks, lost a house (and dog) in a fire, dealt with a major HR issue at work, almost destroyed my romantic relationship, and plenty of other things.
This may seem somewhat terrible at first glance, or maybe it seems like child’s play (depending on your experiences). But what I know is that it could have been worse in an infinite number of ways. I could have been an orphan only to finally connect with my mom four days before she died. She could have lacked access to fantastic medical care. Etc. Etc. Etc.
I’m truly grateful for what did happen — I’m grateful for my “rogue wave.” Because after having gone through all this, I also feel quite connected to the billions of people that have walked this planet before me.
What connects you, me, and all other humans is not the specifics of our pain, suffering, and hard times. Your flavor of “hard” will be different than mine and different than Alexander Hamilton's or Malala Yousafzai’s.
What connects us is our experience of suffering and our choice to go through it, to process it, and to connect in it and on the other side. In this way, we get to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us and lend our shoulders to those that will follow.
If you can read this article on your laptop or smartphone, you are better off in this moment than you can comprehend. Despite being in whatever tough emotional, physical, or financial situation you are — you have access to thousands of articles, videos, and podcasts at your fingertips — where people relay exactly how they made it through similar situations.
You have the opportunity to surround yourself with incredible mentors — from Emerson to King to Vaynerchuck. Just plug in your headphones. Stick your nose in a Kindle. Find a new model for the world. Use social media to connect with others.
If everything’s falling apart around you, make the decision to rise above, to seek that which you know exists in the human spirit: love, positivity, growth, contribution, etc. To use the resources at your disposal — to get inspired to activate this pain for good.
3. Nothing is ever as permanent or pervasive as it seems.
All your experience at this point will tell you that things are going to be okay. Even though you may be experiencing your own version of a rogue wave, even though you haven’t gone through this before, your experience supports that:
this, too, shall pass.
But it’s human nature, that when something bad happens, we start making broad claims like:
- I’ll never be able to love again.
- Everything is ruined.
While losing a loved one or a limb is permanent, the corresponding state of disorientation, grief, and misery is not.
That part is ephemeral. Because all emotional states are transient — they fluctuate from moment to moment.
Depression, grief, anxiety, devastation — these intense feelings have a way of tricking us into believing that all of life is ruined for eternity.
But this period of searching for the lifeboat will end. No matter how bad it seems, no matter what’s happened, you will make it through this. I promise you that.
Because like the calendar, life is happening in seasons. Just because you’re surrounded by snow today doesn’t mean it’ll never melt. It may take a while, but the flowers will eventually start to bloom again.
They’ll bloom from the ashes of what used to be.
And that, my friend, is the reason for this pain of yours. I see no other possibility.
Thanks for reading! ❤
One more quick thing… I created this 5-day email “course” (really just 5 emails about strategies I’ve learned to help me survive and thrive) for grievers searching for meaning in their losses. Loss — through death, breakup, or whatever else — is one of the most complex catalysts for a crash or rogue wave. What happens in the wake, called grief, is often confusing, far-reaching, and devastating.
If you are grieving, or just trying to learn a bit more about what happens in grief, give it a look. And if you do, I’d love to hear your thoughts.