The Alchemy of Crisis

Author Mark Matousek on how we can use suffering for our ultimate transformation

Writer Mark Matousek has come through more than his share of tough stuff--from family tragedy and turmoil to illness to the highs and lows of a glam-seeming past-life as an editor for Andy Warhol at Interview magazine. When he was diagnosed with HIV in the late-1980s, he launched on a path of spiritual seeking.

Now the author of several memoirs and a contributing editor at O: The Oprah magazine and Tricycle, his latest book, "When You're Falling, Dive," is about using pain to grow. He merges interviews with luminaries like Joan Didion and Stanley Kunitz with his own story and tales of ordinary folk—from a mother who lost her child but remains open-hearted to a photographer who started creating his best work after going blind.

Matousek talks to Beliefnet about how trauma, crisis, and loss are spiritual opportunities for us to evolve into richer humans, permanently altering how we see—and treat—the world.
 
 
What inspired you to write a book like this?
Two weeks before my sister committed suicide, she came to me—I was 20 and she was 30—and asked, "How do you live?" And it came out of nowhere. She was really struggling to find her way back to the surface. I had no idea what to tell her. I mean, I was a kid myself and fighting to figure out my own life. And so, I didn’t answer her. I feel like I’ve been trying to figure out all of these years what I would have said. 
 
And then when mortality paid me a visit in my late 20s, I went on a long journey looking for answers to that question, "How do you live?" Not only survive to save your skin, but how do you survive as a soul? How do you reinvent yourself after catastrophe? How do you handle the really extreme things that life deals you and come through intact—and with curiosity and interest and enthusiasm in your life? 
 
When I was 28, I was working for Andy Warhol at Interview magazine. Everyone thought I was so lucky, and I was miserable inside. The fear of mortality got me to ask, "Why am I so unhappy?" And then, when the reprieve came in 1996 and the drugs for HIV appeared and all of a sudden you weren’t going to die, it doubled the effort. I was really determined not to lose what I had learned in extremis. Many survivors say that you feel it’s your duty. It feels like an affront to God or life not to bring everything you’ve learned when you thought you were losing it to the rest of your precious life.
 
Can you talk about the "blue flower moment"—how you refer to sudden spiritual awakening that be born from crisis?
You have these moments when you snap awake, and you’re in the present. And it happens so rarely that when it does, it feels like almost like an altered state. And you think, "What’s different now?" And what’s different is that my eyes are open and I’m seeing. I’m actually here. These sacred moments are happening all of the time. But we’re in a kind of trance. We’re in a workaday, mundane hallucination of ordinariness. And what you realize is when you touch mortality, where life and death meet, that’s where epiphanies happen. Nothing is ordinary. What could be less ordinary than being alive? On this mysterious planet? It’s extraordinary. 
 
And when you have that experience, it changes how you see. Not permanently, in every minute. You're still screwed up, struggling you, but you have a reference point for something that’s beyond mundane. 
 
What’s the difference between people who transform in crisis and people who melt?
One of the most important things is being able to imagine yourself in a new way. If you can’t, it’s very hard to come through fire. When mystics talk about ego-deathit’s a very literal experience. It doesn’t feel good. It’s not easy. But you realize you are so much bigger than you thought you were.

Most of us have to be forced, kicking and screaming, to give up our ordinary life, even if we’re not happy. That’s what’s amazing. A lot of people would rather hold on to the hell they know. And those are the people who melt. One guy I spoke to, he was in the hospital for eight months and said he could tell within a couple of minutes whether somebody was going to survive or notand it had to do with whether they were willing to see themselves in a new way. If they couldn’t, they were doomed. 
 
What conditions have to exist for us to imagine ourselves different?
One is the inability to escape. Because most people will run away from whatever is uncomfortable. The inability to escape is a blessing because it really, truly forces you to be there, grow through that, and then transform.
 
So transformation isn't about will?
No, no. When you’re going through rapids, often it’s surrender that gets you through. That’s why I called the book "When You’re Falling, Dive," because, if you don’t dive, you do so much more damage to yourself and you don’t go as far because you’re kicking and screaming and holding on to the branches. If you dive, you find that life will take you. And you feel—finally—part of something bigger. When you go through it enough times, you start to trust it.
 
And I’m a control freak. I'm a type-A personality. Your typical macho, idiot guy. But when you can’t control it over enough years, and find that you’ve been taken consistently places you didn’t expect, you start to believe it. You start to believe you’re really not driving the car. 
 
What did you learn from the people you interviewed? 
On thing is that loss or change becomes part of who you are. I can be a little transformation crazy, one to just do a 180. But it’s never 180. There’s residue. There are shadows. There’s something that’s left in you from the loss. And that needs to be blessed.
 
What else did you learn from them?
That your body has an intelligence, and it’s talking to you. But most of the time we’re too busy blabbering to hear it.
In terms of disease in our culture, we often think of the body as the enemy. 
Right. Well, [the trick is] how can you not become your disease or condition, whatever it is. That’s huge, because when the box starts collapsing, you have to get that you’re not the box, or else you feel like your life is over and you stop living. And people want to put you in a box. Sometimes they actually want you to die, which is a very hard thing to accept, but it’s really, really true.
 
Why?
Because it makes them sad to see you. Or because it’s inconveniencing them. Sometimes they want your money. Sometimes they want you to prove a story that they have. It’s really important to not get caught up in other peoples' stories about you. This was huge for me because even though I never was sick a day, for 10 years I had people looking at me like I was doomed. And I used to fight off that pity with both fists. 
 
And it can make you mad, because you realize how they privilege themselves. So, what? Is your body, made of, like, kryptonite or something? It can be incredibly condescending. But you see not only how delusional it is, but how it creates separation in ways that limit your own evolution. If I see you sick and I imagine I’m never going to be sick, then I’m not learning anything. But if I see you as sick and say, "Ah, there but for fortune go I," it becomes a whole different thing. Then you really can evolve.
 
And when you have walked through whatever your fire is, it connects you to the human condition in a way that you’ve probably spent most of your life avoiding and denying. That’s a huge, wonderful, beautiful thing. It deepens you as a person. It humbles you as a person. It opens your heart. It makes you grateful. We forget to have thanks for the things in our lives. People think it’s corny, but it changes everything.
 
You write, "Irritation is the path to wisdom." What do you mean?
One of the prerequisites for change is the inability to escape. And one of the side effects of the inability to escape is irritation. And what is irritation? Irritation is going against the grain. We’re just talking about working against the grain. And that’s actually how evolution happens. And we want it to be easy and pleasant and sweet and to go down like…
 
blueberries
 Like blueberries. So, life isn’t blueberries. And nor would you want a constant diet of blueberries. Often it’s the thing that irks you that pushes you forward. For myself, so many of the things that I thought were the most infuriating have been the things that have made me face my s**t and walk through doors I wouldn’t have wanted to walk through. Almost everything that grows you is stuff you would avoid if you could. That's something people can learn about crisis—that it gives you faith in pain. And that sounds weird, but we automatically think if there’s pain, there’s something wrong, and that is really not true. The impulse might be to fight or flee. But bearing is for me, the real revelation.
 
You realize everyone has their cross— and what do you do with it? You bear it. It becomes a part of who you are. And then you stop resenting the hardship and see it’s the stuff of your life. It’s the shadows in your life that make your life better. People want it easy—they want "life lite."

But the bearing can also have joy.
Yes, joy. I don’t mean like a martyr. No, bearing says, "I’m not trying to throw it off, not trying to run away from it, not resenting and not thinking it’s other.

Do you feel like you’ve answered your sister’s question?
I do. I’ve answered it in the doing. I’m still here. I’ve never been happier. I’ve never loved my life more. I’ve never felt more authentic or enthusiastic. The way I’ve answered it is in knowing there’s not one answer. Sometimes you need to persevere. Sometimes you need to surrender. There’s no one-size-fits-all.
 
Dammit.
Dammit. There just isn’t. And I'm somebody who was always looking for the right answer. I was the most perfectionistic, controlling, "Gotta be the way I think it’s going to be" person you’ve ever met. I just don't see it that way anymore. When you're in a situation you can’t escape, how do you get through it? Raging against the dying of the light? No. You end up killing yourself that way. You get through it by cooperating with something.
 
With whatever’s real.
Yes and then all kinds of things are amazing. One of the guys I interviewed in the book is a photographer who lost his sight. But that's when his real career as an artist began. The work that he’s created after he lost his sight versus the stuff he was doing, no comparison. He’s a world-class artist now.

And people are always saying to him, "Don’t you wish you had sight?" And he says, "No. I don’t wish this hadn’t happened to me," because it’s given him his life. I was just with him this morning, and he's just the most inspiring person you've ever met. He said, "Whatever it is, own it. Whatever it is, own it and make it yours."
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Interview by Valerie Reiss
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