Misery and the Lesson of the Phoenix 

“Sooner of later we all go through a crucible, most believe there are two types of people that go into a crucible.  The ones who grow stronger from the experience and survive it, and the ones who die. But there is a third type, the ones who love to learn the fire. Who stay in their crucible because it is easier to endure the pain because it is all you know anymore. “ —Sebastion Blood in Arrow

Paulo Coelho’s 1998 novel, “Veronika Decides to Die” centers on a Slovenian woman in her mid-twenties that appears to have all any young lady would desire: She is immensely beautiful, successfully employed, and the prospects of a fruitful and happy life were hers. Even so, she makes the decision to end her own life. She is unsuccessful and instead wakes up in a mental hospital. Veronika encounters Dr. Igor, and her exodus begins.

Dr. Igor is conducting experiments on patients where they are told they only have a short time to live and looking at the prospects of death, Igor “shocks” patients back to life. Veronika unknowingly becomes one of his test cases.  During this process, she encounters an individual ravaged with panic attacks, another with severe clinical depression, and yet another with schizophrenia. The interface and relationships with these people lead to a resuscitation for Veronika. She awakens to a new world where she realizes she no longer has anything to prove, no pressure to perform, no overwhelming sense of judgment – she had attempted to take her own life, woke up locked away in a mental institution and ironically, finally came alive. Misery became her way out.

What is it about the prospect of losing our own lives, the crushing trials that increase the perceived value of life as a whole? The crushing leads to purity and in the purity, life emerges for what it was intended to be. Little wonder that Pierre Corneille wrote, “When there is no peril in the fight there is no glory in the triumph.” Anything worth having is difficult and thus, worth fighting for. Partly because of its value, but perhaps, partly because we refuse to run back into the crucible where it was formed in the first place.

Like it or not, misery is a highly skilled and unsympathetic tutor

Aeschylus, an author of many of the famous Greek tragedies writes, “Wisdom alone comes from suffering.” He also expands this, “Out of suffering arises learning; out of learning, knowledge. We may say of pain that we have grasped it only when we know it not only in itself but in what proceeds from it. As so many other things, pain too is known only by its fruits.” Aeschylus made a living writing Greek tragedies and clearly had a firm enough grasp of its virtues to make his mark on history (as well as pay his mortgage). The Greeks understood the crucible well. They had a notion of regeneration and rebirth centered around a persistently stubborn bird known only as the “Phoenix” – In the myth, the Phoenix plummets to the earth and is incinerated only to rise from the ashes renewed and equipped to live out another life cycle.

Today, understanding the razor’s margin between failure and the ability to rise renewed is a significant and grave consideration for individuals looking to differentiate themselves. Actually, the life we long to live is just on the other side of misery and trial. The story of the Phoenix provides a lesson all individuals must understand if they ever intend to climb out. The lesson is not only instructive, but it is also universal. The relative rise of this winged and interminable creature provided a model of longing in the ancient world. Even Shakespeare incorporates the story of the Phoenix into his Henry VII. Pessimists and small-minded individuals may contend the Phoenix was mythology because nothing rises from the ashes, I tend to think the construct has lasted because we intuitively know the longing to overcome persists despite its distress. Greek tragedies and mythology through the centuries have been instructive – to understand the human experience is to begin to understand the stories and experiences the Greeks were attempting to illustrate in their mythology. The lesson of the Phoenix is simple, no one and nothing in nature is immune from its touch. The universal nature of the value of trials transcends history, geography, species, age, the poor and the affluent.

Like the Phoenix, Veronika under the tutelage of a wise physician, has little left to lose and eventually rises….renewed (and better for have taken the fall).  If the ancient Greeks, birds, tragedies or mental illness doesn’t turn your crank, maybe something more modern will. Vince Lombardi, the head football coach of the Green Bay Packers perhaps had a little something for mythology or tragedies as he was known for his famous saying, It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” Or perhaps Muhammed Ali had a similar affinity for tales of birds, “You don’t lose if you get knocked down, you lose if you stay down.”

The question may remain as to why this understanding is so pivotal in the creation of differentiation and the distinction between the world-class and the average. Akin to gold and silver, the highest levels of purity can only be extracted through fire-assay, the process of using extreme temperatures to separate the precious metal from the slack or waste; it is required to cultivate its inimitable value. Without it, its potential value will never come to full fruition.

After working with nearly a thousand leaders and studying the characteristics of the champions, I have learned that what makes the world-class so rare is their unnatural, almost assured willingness to walk into the fire and persist there. Their secrets are less the ones hidden on the walls of some ancient cave or some guru, they are the people who are willing to do what others will not do and in the process, learn to love the fire. Perhaps, this is why Emerson once wrote, “God will not have his work manifest by cowards.”

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