We are tempered and strengthened by our struggles.
In the time when we learned by apprenticing, this was an acknowledged truth. Masters made us suffer in ways that they had experienced to deepen the learning experience as we traded labour for mastery.
Today, though, lots of us look for the shortcuts, the quick and easy way to get status. After all, can’t we just learn anything we need by watching a quick YouTube video?
When we create our own curriculum, we tend to focus on the parts that interest and engage us, skipping over the bits which seem tedious, dull and difficult. We want to get onto the fancy, fun stuff.
Masters know, though, that it is having control of the details is always the basis of excellence. The legendary Jacques Pepin asks novice chefs to cook a plate of chicken for him. The good ones cook plain chicken perfectly, owning the technique, but the wannabes try to do it their own way, with sauce or stuffing that they saw on TV once.
Pepin came up in the harsh apprentice system for cooks in 1940s France so he knows about doing the crappy parts over and over again until you have the discipline to move to the next step.
I understand why we don’t want the next generation to have to suffer like we did, facing stigma and denial, but I also understand that it will be the struggle they choose to enter, the hard work they take on, the tough journey they follow, which will, in the end, shape their success, revealing the gifts they bring to our shared world.
Choosing to avoid struggle is choosing to avoid excellence. Staying comfortable is staying mediocre.
Explaining the bliss and blessing of struggle to someone who wants to believe that just picking and choosing the good bits of life, flipping the channel, is the a good way to get what they think they want is very difficult. Education is what we get when we don’t get what we want. If all we learn is to back off or switch over, rather than to learn and persist until we gain a bit of mastery, well, we don’t really grow from the experiences offered.
My life has been my struggles, and while I know they don’t sound like fun to go through, I am very aware the the gifts I have gained came from engaging them, from surrendering to the moment, from learning the hard way rather than just complaining I wasn’t getting what I wanted, what I deserved, what I was entitled to.
Being ready to affirm someone who is trying hard but suffering a bit is easy for me, usually through making them laugh when they see their challenges in context, remembering both their goal and how far they have come. Doing the same to someone who is just whining about how hard the world is, how they suffer because others won’t make things easy for them, usually makes them a bit miffed at my viewpoint.
Life isn’t fair. We each face challenges, from the mass to the minute, from the political to the personal. Still, it is only how we play the hand that we are dealt that we have any control over. Do we make the most of whatever we have, living with grace and presence?
We know our own struggles intimately. They shape our life-myths and the choices that we make everyday.
Knowing the struggles of others, though, is much more difficult. It takes listening, presence and engagement, entering their narrative with empathy to see the world through the experience of their eyes.
If we hold too closely to our own struggle as being paramount, we won’t be able to see the connections between us, won’t be able to gain a wider context, won’t be able to learn the lessons others can offer us.
Looking at others with envy can lead us to diminish or ignore the struggle others endured to have what they have and get where they are. Often we just wonder how they got lucky, getting what we wanted and deserve, while we still feel mired in our own struggle. We become triggered, angry and resentful which are not emotions that help us do our work of engaging our own personal struggles.
It is often hard to hear when others talk about their own struggles, the challenges that they have had to face to become better, more whole, more authentic, more integrated and more actualized people, especially if we have been resisting engaging our own struggle. Instead, we may look to those who seem to have had an easy ride, like young, attractive people, and wish that our life was just like theirs.
When a rabbi noted that the salty water in a ritual represented tears, I asked her why it didn’t also represent sweat. Isn’t perspiration the mark of the hard work we have to do in the face of struggle, not just respecting the suffering but also the bold and beautiful struggle so many had to make to transcend the barriers in their way?
Human lives have always included struggle. We all knew that until we started living in a modern world where everything was supposed to be neat, clean and easy. Living by avoiding the hard and uncomfortable bits just wasn’t possible. Even today most in the world do not have the luxury & privilege to imagine that they and their loved ones can ever avoid struggle.
Until we can engage, honour and respect the struggle which anneals humans, bringing out the strength & resilience which brings success, we will keep looking for sweet stories about shortcuts and divine interventions rather than understanding our responsibility to co-create our life, to shape it with the pain, sweat and learning which helps us make better choices.
Go out there and struggle. Push to move beyond your limits, your comfort zone, work to find a way around the blocks in your path, find the courage, grace and strength to become new and better. As you understand your own struggles you will better be able to connect with the struggles of others, finding knowledge and bonding in shared strife.
Struggle is at the base of everything valuable, transformative and annealing. A Life is never as satisfying when your struggle it gets you what you need, even if you could not imagine that before you started. Choosing to avoid struggle is choosing to avoid excellence. Staying comfortable is staying mediocre.
My struggles have shaped me, even as they demanded I do the hard, the uncomfortable and the painful. I value that truth.