At the age of 26, a prodigiously talented musician starts to lose his hearing. Devastating for anyone, this is especially depressing for someone whose life is spent writing and performing music.
In one letter the musician writes that the ‘most beautiful years of my life must pass by without my accomplishing all that my talent and powers bid me to do’. He contemplates suicide.
By his late thirties he is so deaf that he needs pen and paper to communicate.
Somehow he finds the resolve to keep writing, even though he can’t hear his compositions. He writes powerful pieces of music for the piano, pieces that challenge the skills of the performer, pieces far more advanced in ideas and technique than anything composed by his peers.
He writes heroic orchestral works, songs, concertos, string quartets. His name, if you haven’t guessed, is Ludwig van Beethoven.
In Paris in 1928, a poor young guitarist is injured in a fire in his caravan. As a result, he can now only use the index and middle finger of his left hand. Instead of giving up playing guitar, he teaches himself to play using his two good fingers.
A short time after his accident, he hears jazz for the first time. He is immediately drawn to the music. He meets a violinist with similar musical interest. The two form the Quintette du Hot Club de France and create a musical style which comes to be known as Hot Jazz. The guitarist’s name is Django Reinhardt. The violinist is Stéphane Grappelli.
In 1988, an American artist is attending an event in New York where he will be honoured by the city. He feels a strange pain in his chest. He takes himself to a medical centre across the road. He collapses and is left paralyzed from the neck down.
With time he regains movement of his arm. But he can’t hold a brush. He continues to paint with a brush taped to his wrist. He paints massive portraits. From a distance, each face is rendered with photorealism. However, up close each portrait is composed of thousands of colour swatches painted in a grid.
The artist’s name? Chuck Close, one of America’s most influential and collectable artists.
These are three famous people who have overcome terrible setbacks to achieve success. For every one of them, there are millions of others we’ve never heard of who have suffered crippling disease, horrific injury or psychological brutality. Somehow they manage to lift themselves up after each fall. They find some inner strength to keep going.
Life’s not all Brady Bunch happiness. We get setbacks. Not all are catastrophic, like Ludwig van Beethoven’s, Django Reinhardt’s or Chuck Close’s. Sometimes the setbacks are simple rejections – of your business proposal, your job application or your manuscript.
William Faulkner, Zane Grey, Beatrix Potter, James Joyce, John Grisham, Jorge Luis Borges, J. K. Rowling and Stephen King were rejected many times before being published. Robert Pirsig’s Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected a record 121 times. When published it sold 5 million copies.
A few years ago my wife and I were defrauded by two people we’d taken for friends. By manipulating sales records, using secret bank accounts and fake bank statements, they stole several hundred thousand dollars. With time we might recover from this financial blow. What we’re less likely to recover from is the psychological trauma of knowing that people we’ve known and trusted for 25 years have done this. Friends don’t do that to friends.
Our physical and psychological health declined. We both suffered depression. My wife underwent 8 surgeries in 12 months. In those black few years, we often spoke of people who were worse off than us. It gave us no solace to think of them. It didn’t make us feel better about our situation. Rather, we used to wonder how horrible it must be for them to be going through something worse than we were suffering.
Some people get knocked down and stay down. I can totally understand and sympathise. Others get back up – not immediately, not easily.
In our case, getting up again was difficult. It took a full 2 years before we were able to start to focus on the future. In a way, I feel more positive, stronger and clearer now than at any time in my past.
When you get knocked down, no matter how bleak things feel at the time, keep searching for the strength and the inspiration to overcome the burdens that hold you down.
Every day, people you don’t know lift themselves up and start again. Be motivated by them. Imagine if Beethoven had used his deafness as an excuse to stop writing music.