When describing the trajectories of other people’s lives, we sometimes make statements that I’ll call claims of ultimate ruination. They take the form of “X ruined his life”, where X is a very specific event or experience. Whatever X was, it changed the person’s life permanently and irredeemably. Examples of X: a breakup, a professional failure, an unsettling spiritual experience, an injury.
These claims are appealing in their drama and simplicity, and terrifying in their implications. What if X happens to me? What if I’m irredeemably, irrevocably, permanently damaged by an event that is totally out of my control?
We should reject these claims, both because they exacerbate the catastrophizing line of questioning above, and because they are never true.
The operative word in claims of ultimate ruination is: permanent, or irredeemable. Nothing is permanent. No problem lasts forever, and no difficulty pervades every imaginable aspect of experience. Rather, our existence is fundamentally one of agency and impermanence. Every new moment is an opportunity to begin again—to accept the past, to let go of worries about the future, to think of new ways to solve your problems.
I think what actually occurs in stories of ultimate ruination is not just the one event, but a series of events, behaviors, thought patterns, and circumstances that continually feed into each other and ultimately give the appearance of unrecoverable ruin. These life trajectories do occur, but we should be careful about how we ascribe the causes within them: it was not just one event that caused everything that followed, and at any point in the trajectory an intervention is still possible.
When I was younger, worries about ultimate rumination terrified me, and the very idea that a single experience could ruin my life was damaging. It made me susceptible to an unhealthy level of worry not just about bad things happening, but about all the consequences that follow after a bad thing happens, and all the ways it would affect my own behavior and mindset and future. “What if this breaks me” was a question I’d ask myself about any prospective stressor, no matter how small. I now think that is a misguided question—you will be broken and rebuilt again and again, and you should focus your efforts on enjoying it all and making things better for yourself and others. This is all occurring in your mind, and your mind is more powerful and flexible than you imagine.
Ultimately there is room for interpretation. If you want to believe that a particular event ruined everything for a person, that it had a permanent and all-pervasive impact on their life, you can find justification for that. But reading just one book on stoicism or post-traumatic growth shows me that people have overcome difficulties most of us can barely imagine. And paying close attention to my conscious experience reminds me that impermanence is a core pillar of our reality, and that even just one glimmer of joy in this moment is enough to refute the sense that life is “ruined”. So I reject claims of ultimate ruination as counterproductive and untrue.