Embracing Struggle

One of my all time favorite movies is The Princess Bride. It’s full of excellent quotes, incredible satire, and wonderful acting. In the past I’ve had a few Princess Bride quoting duels with friends that eventually dissolve into giggling to the point of tears. Recently I followed Cary Elwes (who plays Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie) on Twitter, and he has been posting some of his best lines from Princess Bride. Yesterdays was, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

After a chuckle where I remembered the scene from the movie where Westley performs this witticism, I started thinking about struggle. Often, it seems that people are living life to minimize struggle and maximize pleasure. Advertising campaigns center around presenting a problem that people might identify with, and then showing how their product can solve it. Overweight? Well, try this pill. Dirty floor? Well, try this cleaning product. Frizzy hair? Buy this hair product and your problem is solved.

When hard times hit, as they definitely have in 2020, people tend to look forward to a time when the struggle ends and life goes back to being easier. When there is illness, people look for cures. When relationships get rocky, people look for ways to smooth them out.

Clearly, avoiding struggle is part of human nature. Often, I hear parents saying that they don’t want to their children to struggle the way that they did, and then they do their utmost to make life as easy as possible for their children.

While I understand the instinct to protect, and to seek ease, I wonder about the wisdom of this philosophy. Having had my share of hard times, I can tell you that struggle has led to the most growth in my life, the most self-reflection, the most fruitful changes.

An abusive marriage and ugly divorce led to my going back to school and becoming a psychotherapist. A terrible illness led to my journey into authorship, blogging and podcasting. A painful breakup led to intense spiritual growth and a desire to invest in learning about music and another language. When the fires of struggle show up, if we can embrace them instead of fight, they can forge us from a raw metal into a weapon of great strength and beauty.

On the other hand, we’ve all encountered people who are the product of too much ease and too little struggle. We joke that they were “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” These people tend to be arrogant in their own ignorance of what it is to do hard work–what it is to truly struggle. Often they seem to look down on people who don’t have it as easy as they do, and seem to think it’s some kind of moral failing on their part that the world is harder on them. We call these people who haven’t struggled things like “entitled,” “immature,” and “green.”

Deep down we know that people need struggle to become fully-formed human beings, but we still do our best to dodge it at every turn, and to shield our children from it. We look at celebrities and wealthy people, who we imagine live a life of ease (although this is not actually true), and we think how wonderful it would be to live those lives, leading to even more discontent with the struggles of every-day living.

I would like to advocate for a change in attitude. Instead of looking down on people who are struggling and envying those who have a vapid and overly easy existence, I suggest that we embrace struggle as the transformational process that it is. I suggest that instead of thinking, “Aww . . . poor thing. She/He is really struggling right now,” we think “Wow. That person is really in the forge of the fires of struggle. I wonder what the finished product will be.”

It’s OK to be struggling. It’s a part of life. If your kid is having a hard time with distance learning, that’s OK. Working through that struggle, helps your child to learn how to deal with adversity. Most of us are struggling in some way with the pandemic. Perhaps the struggle is isolation, or joblessness, or fear of infection. Maybe it’s all of these together. And, yes, it is hard, but instead of denying or fighting the reality of your circumstances, I suggest that you ask yourself, “What are the lessons that I could learn from this time in my life?”

Now, I’m definitely not advocating for a “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. That’s one of my top ten most hated phrases. What are bootstraps, anyway? And how am I supposed to pull myself up with them? No. Instead, treat yourself and others with compassion. Support the people in your life as they support you in return. We need each other, and there is no shame in that.

I’m saying that struggle is not something to hide from or be ashamed of. It is not something to apologize for. Each person’s individual struggle can be like a personal hero’s journey. Every hero starts out naive and untested, and then is strengthened by adversity. Nobody is born heroic.

I think it would be appropriate to end with a quote that was brought to my attention by Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. I think it captures this idea of embracing the formative quality of struggle perfectly: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” Theodore Roosevelt.

Overcoming Tribalism and Moving Toward Understanding

In a year where I feel like I’m huddled in the quiet place at the center of a tornado, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the swirling whirlwind around me and marveling at its cruelty. Whenever I venture a little out of my comfortable quarantine space, bad things seem to happen. A few days ago I commented on an article online, and every day since, I’ve been barraged by people accusing me of intellectual, educational and moral degeneracy. These people don’t know anything about me except for one line of text, and based on that they feel entitled, and even morally obligated, to treat me like an enemy.

What’s more, I understand the urge. Sometimes people express opinions that fill me with righteous anger, and I wonder how anyone could possibly think the way that person does. Unless I consciously push back against the hardwired workings of my brain, it will automatically put that person I disagree with into the category of “other,” a person who is not part of my tribe, and not to be trusted.

Our brains evolved to classify people in this manner in order to keep us safe. When confronted with someone new, our brains will almost instantaneously assess that person’s appearance, demeanor, and attitude, and decide if that person is “us” or “other.” This was a matter of life or death in antiquity. Someone from a neighboring tribe would quite likely be an unsafe rival who competed with us for food and other resources, and they could be dangerous to our physical safety.

Unfortunately, as the centuries progressed, this hardwiring to the ancient structures of our brains didn’t change, and people still unconsciously continue to assess those that are unlike them to be threats. We can easily see this behavior in teenagers who form cliques that are fiercely loyal to each other, and who roam school hallways together looking for “others” to crush.

While people gain identity, safety, and companionship from being part of the group, they may also be stifled by it. Those that don’t conform to the group norms can end up ousted from the group, and find themselves in the cold and frightening role of “other.” As a result, people stop being creative, stop growing and changing, and stop trying to understand those who are different from them in order to avoid losing their safe place as part of the tribe. Sometimes, people will even do things that go against their own moral codes in order to remain in good standing with the group.

While we may not form cliques as often as we get older, we still join and conform to tribes. It may be a political party, a career path, an ethnicity, a religion, or even a family group. Our identities become bound up in these groups and we’re hardwired to see people in other groups as “the other” and somehow threatening to us, even if they actually have no intention of harm.

As people become more and more identified with their tribes, they lose objectivity, and they can be easily manipulated into hating the other group. Unethical people who are looking for power will often use this all-too-human tendency to unite against an “other” to rally people behind them. This process is extremely dangerous. Throughout history we’ve seen what happens when groups of people are demonized, labeled and feared: genocides, civil wars, concentration camps, witch burnings . . . the very worst of human atrocities. They all happen because of this hardwired tribalism.

So what’s the fix? How can we intervene? Well, the first step is to start paying attention. First, pay attention to the messages within your particular groups. Who is it that is being placed in the role of “other,” and who is benefiting from placing people in that role?

Next, pay attention to the feelings in your own body. If you feel comfortable with the messages of one particular group, but the other group’s messages make you feel physically uncomfortable, that’s not a sign that the other group is bad. It’s a sign that you have become so aligned with the beliefs of your own group that the way people from other groups see the world feels alien to your nervous system. Instead of further rejecting the worldview of other people and seeing them as wrong, grow curious. Start investigating other ways of thinking and believing. The more that we understand other people, the more we can embrace their differences.

Read books about topics that you’re uncomfortable with, and by people who you don’t agree with. Talk to people from the other group with an open and compassionate heart and mind, and try to understand why they see the world the way that they do. Nobody arrives at their beliefs in a vacuum. They’ve had life experiences that led them to where they are now. Understanding and knowing those stories breeds compassion, and we are in desperate need of compassion right now.

In my work as a therapist I talk with people from every imaginable group, and I can tell you that suffering, and a need for understanding are universal. Showing understanding for someone in a group different from yours is healing for everyone involved.

So, next time you’re online and see someone posting an opinion that you don’t agree with, instead of pelting them with insults, I encourage you to ask them why they believe what they do, and ask it with a truly open mind. If they answer, it might not change your mind, but it might help you to have understanding and compassion for a different way of seeing the world. It might help you to bring that person out of the “other” category and into the “us” category.

The truth is that we are all human, and while seeking out the differences between us in order to categorize, label and oppress people might be part of our hardwired nature, I believe that we have the capacity to rise above our hardwiring and make choices. People do it every day. They choose not to punch that person that made them angry, or ram that car that cut them off. We have the capacity to choose our behavior because of our amazing frontal lobes, which give us reason and self-awareness. I encourage you to start viewing people as a tribe of humankind in all of its wondrous and beautiful variety. Maybe then we can start treating each other with true humanity.