A little over five years ago I defended my master's thesis, which was complicated and had lots of variables...and exhausted me trying to remember the title in the correct order. I confess I'm too lazy to pull it up and check (but there is a link to the thesis somewhere on the side bar).
It was dry and scientific and proposed a study of chronic pain patients (waves her hand hi) examining the variables of personality traits (specifically neuroticism), explanatory style (see Seligman), and religious and spiritual beliefs against satisfaction with life and adaptive coping skills. It would have been an interesting study to conduct, and it's a question I'd still like to see answered.
How we explain things to ourselves, what we believe in--whether God is there for us to lean on in hard times or whether we believe we are cursed, how angry, distrustful, and anxious we are--all of that obviously impacts how we cope, how satisfied we are with our lives.
The religious and spiritual components (or lack thereof) in our life have a profound impact on how we view the world, our place in it, and what we experience. It either arms us in metaphorical armor or it has us already on our knees with head bowed in defeat before the battle begins.
Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant Chronicles were pivotal books in my adolescence. How Covenant faced the world, both the real and the magical, and his disability and his failures, was a blueprint, in a way, for how I viewed the world. Covenant was not a good man or a heroic man, and yet he found himself on the hero's journey, a quest he would have placed on anyone else but himself. As for adaptive coping, that was definitely not his strength. And yet, when the magical and later the real world placed demands on him, asked that he honor his covenant--what a name!-- he came forward and did what he had to, regardless of the cost to him.
His ultimate sacrifices, his willingness to uphold a covenant he was not originally accepting of, came to be a way of viewing duty and honor for me.
Avoiding Covenant's flaws--his tendency to hurt anyone who cared for him, to commit acts that violated morality--and then to spend his time making recompense--these competing ideas have remained present in my mind for thirty years now.
Who knew fantasy novels could be so incredibly profound?
Well, those of us who read them, of course.
It wasn't just Donaldson's fictional worlds that resonated with me and grounded and guided me. Gene Wolfe's worlds were just as foundational. Honoring the dead, doing what is right, fighting for what you believe in, attempting to overcome your own weaknesses in order to be a better person...the fantasy novels of my teenage years had a profound impact on me.
I know now, of course, having read Joseph Campbell for the last twenty years, that these were hero quests, and that by having flawed, all-too-human and reluctant protagonists that the authors were allowing the readers to place themselves in the heroes' shoes, to see themselves on those journeys, and to believe that they, too, could do the right thing when it was required of them.
It is, I can see now, a lot to put on one's own shoulders, but it fit in with what was going on in my life then and now: the idea of being strong even when you feel and know you are weak, the requirement that you soldier on regardless.
When you are focused on this relentless march forward, talismans become vitally important. Sometimes it's the signposts we set up for ourselves (and here I think of King's Gunslinger series), the map we have with the goals laid out in front of us.
If we don't have talismans or signposts or things to look forward to--indicators that we are strong enough, that we have magic on our side, and that our progress, though slow, is visible, I think that adaptive coping becomes impossible.
Part of growing up and growing older means reconciling what we want with what we have, with accepting loss as a natural and inevitable part of life, and adding all that to our knapsack, heaving it onto our shoulder, and continuing our march.
It also means knowing when we can jettison some of that baggage. And maybe that's the harder part. Thankfully, if we have friends who love us, they can provide help and let us know when it's time to let go of what was never ours to carry. Just as important is letting us know when we have strayed from our path, when the signposts are deceptive.
My talismans are those friends. They make me believe in magic--that we are lighter than we otherwise look, and that our burdens are not nearly as heavy as we think.