Bruce Lee died when he was my age. Technically he was a year younger than me. But that makes everything he did in his short life — and its still-resonating effects — all the more impressive to me.
Three years before his death, Bruce injured his back while training. He couldn’t do anything physical for months. He was devastated. His whole life and career revolved around movement.
And in his depression, he battled the pain and despair by writing what became a book of his philosophies: The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. These writings are among the most enduring parts of Bruce’s posthumous legacy.
I read quotes from Tao of Jeet Kune Do to pump myself up before I go up on stage to give speeches sometimes. I quote Bruce all the time in interviews like some sort of obnoxious person.
The power of these words has really affected me.
And that’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. In the middle of my usual post-big-project slump (goodbye Dream Teams, hello depression!), I’ve been also working through some difficult personal stuff (prefer not to talk about it!). And I’ve been thinking about how to make lemonade out of the lemons.
Everyone goes through hard things. Everyone makes mistakes. Most people at some point will find themselves in a metaphorical back brace, questioning their identity, questioning their self-worth, questioning their ability to move forward.
Even Bruce Lee.
And in the swirl of my own recent self-analysis, I’ve found a few bits of solace — and life lessons — in Bruce’s story. (Along with other texts I’ve been gobbling up.) I thought I’d share three of these lessons with you, my friends, for the next time you find yourself in a personal funk, big or small:
The first lesson is about post-traumatic growth
This is the less-studied of two phenomena that happen when we go through something awful. We either get stressed (PTSD), or we grow. Depending on the trauma and how we deal with it, hard things can indeed make us better. Not always, but if the trauma doesn’t take away our capacity to look inward in an honest way, we have a shot of leveraging it, rather than being destroyed by it.
“Science shows that hardship leads to something better when it is used as an opportunity for self-assessment, a rare chance to reevaluate the basic premises of our life,” writes a buddy of mine, who went through a fair amount of PTSD (and growth!) in his career and personal life a few years ago, in his wonderful book, A Book About Love. “The pain becomes an engine of meaning, as people often discover in the aftermath of a great difficulty that life is brief, and that those we love matter more than anything else.”
Do you hear that? SCIENCE shows this. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is not just wishful thinking. Thank God(s). It just depends on if we’re able to use it to reassess our ourselves. Easier said than done, for sure. But this is comforting.
Bruce grew from his pain, used it as an engine to evaluate his life, improve himself, and to create something that’s helped many, many other humans.
Which brings us to the second lesson from Bruce’s story: The power of our words
As a journalist, I see my role in society as one who uses words to create change. That’s a powerful and humbling responsibility.
But as a human being, my role should be no different. Should it?
Our words are sharp tools. They can free people or destroy them. So many of our problems in the world and in our lives come from using the power of our words improperly. And even as a journalist who prides himself in the truth, I’ve learned that I am not automatically inoculated from the ability to cause pain with my words in everyday life — from lying to gossip to defeating self-talk — and that’s a power we all can afford to take real time to observe, evaluate, and commit to using the right way.
As Don Miguel Ruiz writes, “Your word is pure magic, and misuse of your word is black magic.”
In Bruce’s time of agony and despair, he used words to help others, and to set himself free. Even while he was trapped physically. Instead of cursing himself or others, he took his philosophy of martial arts, distilled it into words, and applied it to life.
Maybe that’s a reason I’m writing this post and sending it you, actually. Because stringing together words that can help other people helps me, too.
Side note: Actually, as I was editing this post I ran into another part of A Book About Love that talks about exactly this. Research on people who write about the hard times they’ve been through shows this:
“Confronting a trauma helps people to understand and ultimately assimilate the event,” Pennebaker [one of the scientists who performed studies comparing traumatized people who journaled about their trauma versus didn’t] writes.
“By talking or writing about previous inhibited experiences, individuals translate the event into language. Once it is language-based, people can better understand the experience and ultimately put it behind them.” It’s a literary model of healing, in which the mere attempt at description — trying to put the feeling into words — comes with significant benefits.
Putting our hardships into words — talking about them, writing about them — helps “people tell a story about themselves that they could live with, even if it was still stained with regrets.”
This can come in the form of journaling, of talk therapy, of opening up honestly with friends and partners, blogging, or, in Bruce’s case, drafting his philosophies.
And that brings us to the final lesson I’m taking from Bruce’s story: the power of finding yourself on the road less traveled
Call it lateral thinking, call it innovation, call it changing the game — call it any of my favorite euphemisms for the topic I write so much about in my books — but Bruce Lee recognized something really cool in the middle of all this back trouble: that you don’t come to know your true self by trying to be someone else.
In the Tao of Jeet Kune Do, he wrote, “If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow — you are not understanding yourself.”
What I’m trying to say, my friends, is keep beating your drum until you find the beat that’s yours. When you feel down, use your words to spread beauty and love and change for others — whether you write them or just speak them. And use that writing and narrative-searching process to find the growth in hardship when it hits you — whether it’s a setback or a slump or one of life’s stupid mistakes.
That’s what I’m going to be working on for the next little while. I’ll check in to let you know how it’s going.
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