If you were hurt by someone you love, it’s important to get real about the injury and account for all the damages inflicted: the common money the compulsive gambler spent, the trust the adulterer squandered, the confidence the abusive parent wrecked. It’s equally important to note the damages that were not done, the parts of you that are untouched by your misfortune, and qualities of yours that may even be strengthened.
I hope there’s a lot that has been untouched. You may, to a greater degree or another, still have your health, your friends, family, job, savings and credit, education, home, and any number of other, what we might term, external goods. Go ahead and take inventory; but, I primarily want to call your attention to a property of yours that no one can take away, and may have even been made perfect by adversity.
What is this thing that no one can take away and that may be strengthened by adversity? It goes by many names, all of them vague. The ancient Greeks called it prohaireses. In English it’s been translated Dignity, Self Respect, the Unconquerable Will, the Unquenchable Human Spirit, Free Choice, and Moral Purpose. This is a quality possessed by everyone and it is always within reach. It outshines all differences of circumstance, accidents of fate, and actions of others and makes them trivial. It’s all you need to live a life you can be proud of. It may have been the very thing most lacking in your loved one, that led to whatever he did to you.
Prohaireses is the choice you have in giving in or resisting external forces. If someone calls you out on something, it is up to you whether you believe it. If someone has done something irritating, it is you who decides to be irritated. If someone strikes you, their blow may break a bone, but it doesn’t have to break your spirit. The idea behind the concept is that, while you have no control of what others do to you, or what fate does to you; you do have control over what you do with it. The name for that control is prohaireses.
Let me explain prohaireses by metaphor. Two people walk into a bank, one with a great credit score, the other with a bad one. They both ask for a loan. The banker may decide that she won’t lend money to the one who has good credit and she may decide to give a chance and lend money to the other with bad credit. The banker is free to choose. The name for that choice is prohaireses. In the same way, regardless of whether your loved one is trustworthy or not, you are free to choose whether to trust him.
Another way to get at the concept of prohaireses is to think of a person who has triumphed over adversity; a survivor, rather than a victim. There’s plenty of examples. A boy, born to poverty, who picked himself up by the bootstraps. A Pakistani woman, her face disfigured by acid, speaking out for the education of girls, despite the reprisal. A girl, raped, and pregnant at 14, who goes on to become Oprah. A divorced mother, writing at her kitchen table, collecting rejection slips, creating Harry Potter. A Black South African, imprisoned for decades, who gets out and leads his country into justice and reconciliation. A teen aged girl, hiding from the Nazis in her attic, who, nonetheless believes in the essential goodness of all. A religious teacher dying a slow death, who enjoins God’s forgiveness. A tired seamstress, who won’t give up her seat on the bus.
The list goes on and on, but it’s not limited to extraordinary people. It includes myriads of anonymous individuals who represent the triumph of will over hardship. The roofer who works in the sun, the cook who works in the heat, the postal worker who delivers the mail in the wind and rain. The new dad, abandoned by his father, determined to be there for his children. The mother who gets up in the night, even though she’s tired.
Prohaireses is found more in conditions of weakness and vulnerability than it is in strength. You see it at physical therapy where stroke victims learn to walk all over again. You find it in rehab where addicts are determined to change. I witness prohaireses in my office when a depressed or agoraphobic person leaves her home to attend a session. It’s there when you are patient with fools, kind to strangers, and whenever you refuse to stoop to the level of someone mistreating you. Prohaireses is really so common that it’s ordinary, except that it ennobles people to do extraordinary things every day.
Maybe prohaireses is a miraculous thing. Maybe it’s the higher power that the AA people speak of that enables people to do what they couldn’t do before. I could buy that, with the stipulation that, if you get it by God’s grace, it is given to everyone, good and bad, all the time, like the sunshine, and not doled out on special occasions only to the people who qualify.
You exercise prohaireses by taking responsibility, not of everything, but of the only things you are responsible for: yourself and what you do. You deplete it by engaging in self pity and feeling sorry for yourself. Taking inventory of the damage done, as we have been doing, could drain your tank of prohaireses if you stopped there, if you do not acknowledge the fact that you have something to say about how you live your life. The good thing is, no matter how much prohaireses you have let go, you always have more. You always have an opportunity to take charge.
So, I can tell you what hasn’t been taken away. The answer is your Dignity, Self Respect, Unconquerable Will, Unquenchable Human Spirit, Free Choice, and Moral Purpose. You may have misplaced it, or never knew it existed; but you still have your prohaireses. Use it.