David Roland is the author of How I Rescued My Brain. He has a PhD in clinical psychology and is an honorary associate with the University Centre for Rural Health at the University of Sydney. He is a founding member of Compassionate Mind Australia. Here, he talks about his new book and finding new ways forward in a pandemic.
“Suffering in its simplest form is ill at ease with what is, wanting it to be some other way when it cannot be.” The Power of Suffering
In early 2019, I downsized my possessions, selling and giving away years of accumulated stuff; things I now felt burdened by. I wanted to shake loose the twenty-plus years of routines and responsibilities that had bound me while working and raising my three daughters. I wanted to feel the freedom of insecurity again and to welcome the unexpected.
All the research for the new book was done: the collation of personal stories of people I came to know and who had survived intense suffering and grown, the experts I’d spoken with, and my gathering reflections. The first three chapters were written, and I had a publication contract in my pocket. With ten more chapters to write, I headed off on a writing road trip leaving my base in northern NSW, taking my tools of trade: a laptop, phone and reference books. With a publication date of 1 March 2020, I had plenty of time.
First stop was an artist’s residency at Bundanon Trust, near Nowra NSW, then onto the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria for a month where a friend had offered a writing space in the quiet of the hills.
My editor at Simon and Schuster invited me to send him work in progress, so I did. The draft of each new chapter was teleported to him and, in a week or so, he responded with a telephone call and track changes on the manuscript. I felt like a wayfaring explorer, but one who had the end in mind.
After two months on the road, it was time to turn around and head north. I bought a vintage caravan envisioning stays in camping grounds surrounded by trees, enveloped in nature sounds, my ideal working environment. The caravan would become my cosy office on wheels.
But it didn’t always work out this way.
On one occasion I thought I had landed in writing paradise – an idyllic caravan park by the beach with expansive lawns, paperbark trees, shaded campsites. On the first day, however, the groundsmen brought out every piece of gardening machinery known and began to mow, snip, blow and round up any foliage that stuck its head above ground. I skedaddled to different locations within the park until I was caught out by a leaf blower or a returning holidaymaker whose cabin deck I had been sitting on, thinking there was no-one staying there. It felt hopeless.
The next morning I awakened to quiet with a sigh of relief, but then a public address system cranked up. It was the school’s zone cross-country carnival and I was told competitors would be running around the campground roads till three in the afternoon. Not only that, but the sausage sizzle and drink stall was being set up in the BBQ area right by my camp spot.
“Is there ANYWHERE quiet I could go to work?” I pleaded with the woman at reception. There was, she said, a picnic area a short drive away. “Hardly anyone goes there,” she said. And indeed, she was right. For the next three days, I took my writing tools and lunch and set up by the picnic table encircled by the stately presence of tall rainforest trees and birdsong. The only other regular visitors were the garbage truck collector who came by at eleven for his morning tea, giving me a wave like I was a regular before he settled down on the other side of the picnic ground, and two curious (read hungry) kookaburras, who liked to prop themselves on the picnic table.
2020 was to be the year of the book for me, promotion, public appearances, meeting readers, running workshops, and responding to new opportunities. I gave myself this year to determine if I could continue as a writer and presenter with the new book – my talisman. I envisioned the book being embraced by an ardent and grateful audience. But, instead, someone shut the doors.
The book, a three-year project in all, has descended into a black hole.
All book events, interviews, speaking gigs and festival attendances have been cancelled or postponed. The arts pages have shrunk in mainstream media publications, taking with them the book reviews and features that would have once peopled them. Only well-known authors seem to be getting the usual kind of publicity. All news is trumped by ‘the virus’.
I was able to get two local book launches and one bookstore event at Avid Reader in Brisbane before the lockdown. At the Avid Reader event, a strange new thing called ‘social distancing’ was practised, with a reduced audience sitting 1.5 metres apart and a moat-sized space between them and me. I am very grateful for these live events; it gave me the sense that the book, which had been for so long in my head, was real and that real people wanted to have conversations about it.
What has proved sustaining for me since, are the readers who comment via social media and respond to my posts, offering praise and validation. I have attended online writer’s salons, networked with writers, and felt a sense of camaraderie I haven’t experienced before.
Until this blog, I have been unable to write anything new. I poke around each day networking and promoting the book online. It’s been hard to find a sense of purpose. Should I write short articles or put it all aside for now until we return to the ‘new normal’, when things might make more sense?
The road trip had shown me multiple times that disruption and the unexpected is inevitable and the way forward is to accept what is and then find the best alternative.
But I haven’t been able to dodge the pandemic like I could a noisy camping ground. This is much bigger than me.
I know from my investigation into human suffering that following a major life upheaval there is the initial shock and distress, the sense of displacement, but clarity comes, and with that, new ways forward.
This pandemic is showing us what we don’t need, as well as what we do, and it is clear that a society without writers, books and the creative arts is a weakened society, a much less resilient one.
David’s new book The Power of Suffering is out now.
The Power of Suffering is psychologist David Roland’s personal investigation into the nature of human suffering. When our world is turned upside down, what does it do to us, how do we survive it, and, most importantly, how can we grow as a result? David takes the lived experience of eleven incredible people and follows them along each step of their journey from crisis through to acceptance and triumph. Within each story, David draws on his own experience of life-altering trauma and clinical research to offer insights we all can gain from.
Each life story examined is a moving testimony of the human spirit’s ability to rise and rise again – an executive tragically loses his family in a car crash and finds healing in the rehabilitation of wildlife, a teenage victim of domestic violence becomes a fierce advocate for abused women and brain-injured youth, a football superstar overcomes bigotry and dyslexia to forge a career in acting, a mother experiences the aching depth of love lost after her teenage child’s life is tragically cut short. These are but a few of the intimately told stories, all pointing to a path through the storm and beyond.
The Power of Suffering is a revelatory account of how the darkest night can lead to the most profound dawn.