What is your proudest accomplishment in life? I’m going to stall here for a moment while you think about your answer to this question. Mighty fine weather we’re having, huh? Doo doo doo—oh, I love this song! Yes-sir-ee, looks like a beautiful day. Okay, and… Time! What did you come up with for your proudest accomplishment?
Maybe you chose…
- Graduating high school or college
- Giving birth to your children
- Earning a certain career position
- Buying your house
- Sending your children to college
- Running a marathon or climbing a mountain
- Quitting smoking or drinking
- Being in the service
- Saving someone’s life
- Helping someone else accomplish their dream
These are all really amazing achievements and let’s take another pause to appreciate you, dear reader, for being so strong and capable!
And now, let me draw our attention to a theme that all of these accomplishments share: the process by which one achieves these involves struggle. In fact, their very nature necessitates struggle—these actions wouldn’t be especially rewarding if there had not been a journey. We have just presently arrived at the topic of this article: Falling in Love with the Struggle. Or, if you’re more reserved: Appreciating the Struggle.
Struggling is Inevitable
Or, as the Buddha dharma teaches, suffering is inescapable.
If you haven’t read a lot of Buddhist philosophies or self-help inspirationals, then this information may seem rather bleak and defeatist at first. But it’s actually not totally bleak.
First of all, what we choose to suffer about is, a lot of the time, up to us. We don’t have to suffer by being angry at our co-worker: we kind of choose that beef. Some part of us goes, “Hey, take offense to what he just said!” And then before we know it, we’re stewing about how much that guy sucks. Feelings like anger, jealousy, hatred, and pride cause us to suffer—it may feel really good to be vengeful, but when we let these emotions control us, we suffer for it. This sort of suffering stems from internal factors; even if it’s really hard for us to not be mad at annoying co-workers, it really is ultimately up to us. We develop these negative emotional responses, and they become habits so it feels like we don’t have a choice but to react a certain way.
Suffering can also occur because of external factors, the things out of our control. If our house catches on fire and burns to the ground (okay, sidenote: I am so excited for Little Fires Everywhere to come out on Hulu!) then that’s something horrible that wasn’t our fault (unless we had left a flat iron on in the bathroom, my mother’s greatest fear!). This sort of suffering is harder to cope with because we just have to come to terms with something we’re powerless over. External-based struggles can also include others treating us poorly, a toxic work environment, personal injuries, and so on. There’s so much pain in life that we have absolutely no say over.
So, there are struggles inside us, struggles outside us, and the interplay of both inside-outside struggles.
No matter how cozy our life is, there’s always going to be struggle—there are unlimited amount of struggles for people to experience in this world, even if the spectrum of struggling spans greatly. For example, 500 years ago, people were probably like, “Wow, all this poop in the road is a big problem,” and here we are today with indoor plumbing like, “Wow, this toilet paper isn’t soft enough for my rear.” Maybe it’s a “first world” problem, but it’s still a problem to our brain. We have a funny talent for inventing problems and noticing the tiny flaws once we take something for granted, so as we chug along as a population, the struggles will always continue, even if life gets objectively better.
But what do we do with this depressing conclusion that there will always be problems?
Appreciating the Struggle
Life sucks, as adolescent me would say. But at the same time, it’s great, as present-day me has learned. The greatest lesson I have learned as an adult is to find the balance between both sides, see the duality.
I’ve learned that in order to find contentment, we have to learn to love the struggle. I wrote about this a little last year when I reviewed Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#@!—the idea of loving the struggle is counter-instinctual, but the parts that make life rough are also the parts that make life rewarding. The bad parts help us realize that the good parts are good, because we have something to compare it to.
Would graduating college mean as much to us if it didn’t take years’ worth of academic assignments to earn? Would running a marathon be so impressive if it was merely a 10-yard jog? Would we give a crap about buying a house if it didn’t cost so much dang money and paperwork? Would it be so awesome that Chad fit an entire package of Oreo’s in his mouth if we didn’t know he had been working up to that moment by shoving Oreo’s in his mouth every day for a year?
Mmmm, my guess is no, for the most part. (Congrats, Chad. Good for you, pal!) These things are exciting and admirable because someone who ran a marathon probably got up every morning and jogged several miles, for months leading up to that one event. The person who gave birth to a baby spent months carrying that child, enduring physical discomfort and restraint, and finally, laboriously, produced a human being. The most blissful moments of our lives are a mirror of our struggles.
Suffering gives us meaning, adds depths to existence. Imagine how boring a new car is to an adult who has been raised in the lap of luxury; can you imagine being gifted a new car and thinking, “Oh, cool. Does it have WiFi though?” To most of us, who have gone broke over buying pre-owned vehicles just so we can get to work so we can pay our rent, getting a brand new car would be so exciting!! But it would only be exciting relative to our experience—if we have known only crappy cars, then this car is even more special.
As much as the struggle sucks, there’s a healthy dose of suffering that makes us better, stronger people. If we can acknowledge this, then the struggle bus doesn’t feel like it’s hitting us so hard—more like almost passing us by at our bus stop and then picking us up down the road.
What I’m trying to say, is that to minimize our frustration, we can try to remember this amidst our struggling. In fact, we can probably gain more from struggling if we become a student of our suffering. “What is this teaching me? How will I rise to meet this challenge?” It’s a lot more constructive to think of our hardships as practice for us to be our best self than to complain incessantly.
I hope no one is reading this and thinking that I’m advocating people to seek out struggle so that their happiness can feel brighter. “I’m going on a tolerance break from happiness,” I can imagine someone saying. Really, I’m writing this because this is how we transform our suffering—by understanding it. If our life contains no real struggles, then we should consider ourselves quite fortunate and be grateful for our lot.
I also want to comment that some suffering is quite senseless—when people do bad things to other people, no one deserves that. But one way to heal is to determine where we want to go when we leave a bad spot; that much is up to us.
Practicing the Struggle
If we merely seek to “get through” one struggle after the next, we won’t feel very satisfied with life. “I just need to get through the work day and I’ll feel better,” we can tell ourselves. We watch the clock all day, moving lethargically at work, complaining. When we’re finally free, then we say, “I just have to make it through the commute home.” We finally get home, then what? We watch TV until it’s time to go to bed again and do it all over?
The struggle is a part of our lives. In fact, it’s most of our lives. So how we come to view our suffering will greatly influence how we feel in general. A great practice is flexing our gratitude muscle (which I wrote about here) so that no matter what situation we find ourselves, there’s at least a nugget of goodness to inspire us. Using our creativity to find joy in the regular moments is pretty essential for a good life.
When I’m having a bad day, or when I’m feeling sick, I try to remind myself that the struggle is necessary—sometimes it helps a lot, and sometimes it’s just that annoying thing I tell myself that makes me roll my eyes at me. But, it’s good to remember that while there is so much about life that we’re powerless to, there are some things we can change, which makes life better.
Some things not within my control:
- Time: the past or the future
- Aging and death’s inevitability
- How other people think of me/treat me
- How other people feel
- What other people do with their lives
- The world I live in
Some things within my control:
- My attitude
- My actions and reactions
- My words
- What I pay attention to
- How I treat my body and myself
- Who I surround myself with
- How I communicate my thoughts and feelings
- How I treat others
- Right now
When we’re at work, or exercising for a healthier life, or studying rigorously for an exam, or even waking up at 6 AM to get our kid ready for school—these are tasks that don’t necessarily feel “pleasant” yet make for a happier, more meaningful life. Studies show that people with a lower quality of life are actually happier than those with luxurious lifestyle; even if someone’s physically scraping by, they can feel happier than someone who “has it all.” It’s all about how we choose to look at things, because at the end of the day, all we truly have is our perspective.
If you’d like to read more about similar topics, check out the Mindful Living page on my blog.