Life faces us with difficulties. Some difficulties are situational, where we live with danger or scarcity. Some difficulties are relational, where we deal with conflict or loss or loneliness. Some difficulties are physical, where we deal with injury or illness. Some difficulties are existential, where we are faced with our questions about what matters, about the meaning or meaningless we see in life. All of these difficulties require something of us. They require us to face, accept, and engage with the very thing that is causing us pain, fear, or hopelessness. And they require that we do so with faith in the possibility of moving through and past our painful present.
We all have been faced with these experiences, most of us many times. Or we are faced with the possibility of pain should we assert our needs when the world seems unaccommodating. We often seek to avoid the possibility of being fully alive in order to avoid having to endure loss or shame or conflict. And when we avoid this, we avoid our vital selves, and seek to survive rather than to live. Or faced with a painful circumstance we may collapse or prematurely accommodate a diminished life.
We often see these things, these circumstances, these experiences as the limits of our lives. They are barriers that are implanted and permanent. And, we think, who we are is determined and defined by them. So life becomes dull, or hopeless, or we accept that the emptiness we feel is “just how it is”. Patients often tell me of their unhappy marriages and conclude with letting me know that “nobody has a happy or satisfying marriage”. “That’s just how it is”. That belief both consoles these people in their unhappiness, and it confines them to their unhappiness.
An attitude that accepts the inevitability of difficulty, yet doesn’t see life as defined by difficulty, tends to be most helpful in living life. The hard thing, then, is not permanent (in most cases), and it is not inevitable, but it is something that must be accepted and taken on in the journey toward something fuller and richer – more growthful and satisfying – in our lives. That change of perspective is dramatic, although it is not always externally obvious. But what does emerge is a life in which events and circumstances affect us, but do not define us. What defines us instead, is our vision of life unfolding, expanding, and deepening. And our readiness to see what is next.