Unfortunately, your disability probably didn’t come with an instruction manual.
You’ve had to work out how to live with a disability by yourself. You’ve learnt to find your own ways to adapt to the difficulties it presents. You’ve found ways to deal with the warped or ill-informed opinions of others, to get what you want in spite of the difficulties you face and if you’re lucky, the whole experience has made you a stronger person.
However, it can be hard to deal with all the unfairness or disadvantage of the experience. If you’ve sometimes found yourself wondering; “why me?” then it simply means you’re human, it happens to all of us.
It’s very easy to let your obstacles define you, especially when everyone else seems to define you by them. If you use a wheelchair like me, you very quickly get used to people staring or making odd comments.
You simply want the same things as everyone else and yet, in order to even do simple things, like have an evening out, go on holiday or live on your own, you have to move mountains to make it happen.
I’ve often wished there was an instruction manual to teach you how to live with disability, how to use the experience to make yourself stronger, a better person or simply to get the things you want. For years I’ve read countless books on everything from self-help to psychology in an attempt to find ways to live my life to the full with a disability.
What I found is, there is no magic pill, no simple solution (short of a cure) that will solve all your problems for you. What there is, is you. How you choose to interpret your situation, what you choose to do about it and how much you are willing to persevere when things set you back, is the answer.
No matter how powerless you feel or actually are, YOU are still the one with the power to make a change in your life. To live with a disability is to spend every day with adversity. Disadvantages you didn’t ask for. Sometimes, to endure indignities others would never accept.
The second best thing to a manual for living with a disability is then, in a nutshell, a manual for overcoming adversity.
It turns out there is such a book, and it’s called The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity into Advantage, and it is, in my opinion, the guidebook for disability I’ve always wanted.
The Obstacle is the Way
The author, Ryan Holiday, is a 26-year-old best-selling author with quite an impressive CV. But that doesn’t matter here. What does matter is his interest in philosophy and how to apply it to everyday life.
In preparation for writing this review, I asked Ryan some questions about how he thinks his book applies to disability. He said:
I wrote this book for everyone who is going through adversity in their lives. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be disabled, but my hope is the book would inspire people and help them see that there is opportunity everywhere, no matter the circumstances they find themselves in. And I hope I have succeeded with The Obstacle is the Way.
For this book, I wanted to go back in history and ancient philosophy, to find people who overcame difficult situations. Everyone faces difficult and sometimes terrible circumstances, but clearly there’s been much worse things in history that people have overcome and I used ancient philosophy to find the strategies that those people used to come to terms with adversity and thrive despite it.
You might not be interested in philosophy so here’s why this book is important to you: Ryan’s book explains a practical process, broken down into three disciplines, for responding to life’s challenges in a way that will empower you to turn your obstacles into opportunities.
From personal experience I can say the process Ryan describes is a much-improved version of the method that I use personally to deal with my challenges. It’s simple but not easy. But you can do it if you follow the three principles…
The first discipline is perception; learning how to control the lens through which you see life so you can rationally and effectively deal with your obstacles. For example, if I think of myself as a victim, a helpless unfortunate, then I’ll act like one. So I’ve decided to reject that identity wholeheartedly.
Every day I remind myself that I’m lucky, NOT disadvantaged. I condition myself to define myself by my personality, actions and achievements, rather than the random genetic mutation that caused me to be born with muscular dystrophy. Others will only define me by my disability if they have nothing else to remember me by, so it’s my responsibility to differentiate myself. Of course, that’s if I decide I care what they think at all.
The second discipline is action. Learning to deal with, not shy away from, your challenges. It’s when you seek to find the weakness in every obstacle and find a solution to every problem, when you refuse to be told “it cannot be done.”
Personally, I’ve been told anything from “you’ve missed too much class to pass this exam.” to “you will not survive this chest infection” to “you will never come off this ventilator.” But through taking the right action, I’ve done all three.
Not because there’s anything special about me, but because I am simply too stupid and stubborn to take no for an answer, and kept pushing until I found a solution.
Of course, it takes real effort to change your mindset, beliefs and habits before you see results. You have to persist. This takes concentration, effort or you could say, willpower.
Ryan puts it like this: “Will is our internal power which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card… true will is quiet humility, resistance and flexibility.” In other words, it is the ability to accept what you cannot change and persist with what you can no matter what obstacles you face.
When I was in hospital with pneumonia in 2010 I was told to relax because the doctors had decided I was going to die and didn’t want me to spend my last days stressed out. I quietly refused to accept their diagnosis and, with the help of my family, set about surviving. I would spend all day coughing to remove mucus from my lungs, since this was about the only variable I could control.
I would cough until exhaustion, the nurses would give me morphine so I could sleep, then the cycle would repeat. Whether through my own efforts or not, I got better. The only reason I was able to persist as I did was because I’d been taught to value and control my will by reading books like this one. I wish this particular one had been available at the time.
Unlike most books on philosophy, the writing is enthusiastic and clear, so even if you’ve never read anything like it before, it should be accessible and engaging. You won’t find gushing motivational rants, self-indulgent ‘success stories’ or self-help clichés.
Instead, you’ll find practical advice and the honest truth about what it takes to turn your circumstances to your advantage. Sometimes the tone can sound harsh, but its always truthful so…
I also asked Ryan what he has found to be the most effective method for reframing your perception from despondency to something more practical and positive when faced with disappointing or painful setbacks. He said:
Unfortunately I have a good recent example for this that I’ve written about. Late last year I had a week that started with a near fatal car accident on a dark highway and ended with everything that I owned being stolen out of my house.
It was the perfect opportunity to practice everything I had been using my whole life in the worst situations. It could have been the worst thing that happened to me or just a thing that happened. I could have acted like everyone and everything had turned against me. But I used it as kind of a turning point in my life, to remind myself to value what’s important to me and how fragile life is.
It wasn’t easy but I chose to accept what happened and learn from it. To understand that I don’t always control what happens to me. There’s this great concept I write about in the book, called Amor fati, or love of fate. The idea is we don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. Any why on earth would you choose to feel anything but good?
If you have a disability your life is likely to be filled with obstacles and this is the simplest guide I know of for overcoming them.
If you long to be in control of your life, to gain more independence, to prove your worth to the world or even just to be at peace with circumstances you cannot change, then you MUST read this book.
Sp why not try The Obstacle Is The Way? I cannot recommend it enough.
By George Baker