From historical and more recently personal experience, there has been one universal truth that has presented itself as regularly and brightly as the January moon, and that is that life is incredibly hard. Not just on an exceptional level, but as an ever-present dark light pervading our every thought of every day, albeit consciously or unconsciously. Now, to curb the eye rolling from those of you who know me, and any questions around why I tend to linger on these topics in particular, it’s because not only is it true, but it’s also that the human soul has a limitless capacity to consume happiness only. Conversely, there is only so much unhappiness that we are able to digest before things go badly wrong, both mentally and physically. I’ve certainly never come across a situation whereby someone has suffered in this way because they are just too happy?
To understand this at its most basic, think of your own life, think of every single person you know that you are close to and you will be able to outline a point where things have been very hard for them. From your own point of view as you read this, you KNOW that there are things within yourself that have been unequivocally shaped by the hard times that you have experienced. Now, before you stop reading because you don’t want to pile misery on top of misery, know that I believe there are things we can do and approaches that we can all take to ease the burden and to fan the flames that we all have to walk through from time to time. I actually see the knowing of this as an incredible positive. But it requires thought and effort.
But before I explore that, I have to try and answer the question of why. Why is life so hard for all of us? Money offers no safety from it. Careers and financial security offer no respite. It doesn’t matter how big a house you have to hide in it still finds you. Marriage and children won’t pardon it. Travelling the world and all the colourful experiences culture has to offer gives no shelter. Relationships of longevity safeguard nothing. Our gods, real or imagined, don’t appease it. Medicine doesn’t halt it. Psychoanalysis doesn’t out-strategise it.
Of course, these things can all bring happiness, and at existential levels depending on your predisposition, but they offer no solution to life’s inevitable hardships. Regardless of every single variable suggesting optimum life trajectory it simply still exists that there will be periods of time where it will sprout, grow, and flourish. But why, and what can we do about it.
In thinking about this, I would consider the existence of fear as the catalyst. The conditions for fear are sewn deeply into the cycles of our conscious existence from birth until death. In other words, we are born kicking and screaming into a world of which we need to try and make sense of, whilst trying to keep ourselves alive temporarily in an unwinnable race against the ticking clock of our mortality. Directly, or indirectly, fear is a thousand different pinballs that bounce from person to person, generation to generation, environment to environment, culture to culture, instilling at every touch some new form of angst and therefore hardship.
Let’s try and put this in more relatable terms. A child is raised by its parents to fear failure, a fear engrained in the parents by their own because they had to work 3 jobs to fulfil the basic human requirement to eat. The child grows up a perfectionist as a result, but with this relentless work ethic becomes a CEO of an enormous and profitable company. The CEO faces the hardship of neglecting his own children who are damaged by his absence and is terrified by the fact that he can’t get this time back and will die without being able to absolve it. The company itself harbours hundreds of employees, all of whom are infected with the fear of losing their jobs instilled in them by the relentless work ethic and internal resentment of the CEO that has trickled down into its management culture. Along the way, some employees inevitably lose their jobs. Some of these employees overwhelmed by the fear of not being able to provide income for their own families turn to alcohol. One employee in particular crashes his car whilst under the influence and takes the life of another family driving the other way. Now, I pause here realising that this example is rather crass, but you get my point. It is the underlying fear that is the falling domino that brings the next hardship.
This isn’t to say that this is a direct cause and effect that is inevitable for everybody. Its not as simple as that, and there are certainly more variables that amplify our hardships to greater or lesser degrees. What I am trying to say is that fear as a causation of hardship is a chaos theory at its most primal. We are born, we are scared by our own existence, we lack understanding of purpose , our fear creates survival strategies which give rise to greed, selfishness, and a plethora of other negative human attributes, many of which are a distraction from the inevitability of our own deaths, and all the while this is happening completely randomly and irregularly. This is our reality whether we like it or not. That’s life as they say!
So, what on earth do we do about it. Well, there is nothing we can do about the inevitable. We can’t escape suffering and fear, but we can approach it and translate it in different ways and ease the burden. It can be diluted. It can be lessened.
Firstly, with inevitability there can come acceptance (a subject that I talk about a lot, but one that I do think is neglected). By simply knowing that hardship will manifest itself not only in your life but everyone else’s around you allows preparation (to a degree) and a release from the apprehension of its arrival. If you conceptualise this as a type of conscious self-talk, when hardship does arrive, the pain can be better handled. There have been numerous studies on athletes who have used self-talk to lessen the pain of endurance, and subsequently have performed better. They know that endurance is painful, they internalise it, they know and accept that pain is inevitable and in doing so when it arrives it is lessened and easier to manage. The same can be true here. So when life presents hardship you are prepared for its turbulence, often in ways that you haven’t been able to mentally or physically experience before, but you know this, and therefore it is softened somewhat. You know that it will pass. The trick here, in the same way as an athlete, is to train and to not shy away from it. Instead embrace this knowingness with open arms.
Linked to this, particularly the knowing that hardship effects everyone and without exception, is the strength that lies in shared experience. To meditate on this removes the compounded suffering of dealing with it in isolation. More often than not, when we find ourselves in the pythonic grip of one of life’s downslopes, we often feel separated from the world. We feel isolated and singled out. From my own experience I would describe this as living behind frosted glass. You can see life outside of it, but you can’t see it clearly, and you feel like everyone on the other side can’t see you. I often remember feeling resentment and even anger seeing people going about their daily lives. Why couldn’t they see me? Why didn’t they see my suffering? The truth is that there is no way that they could, not unless I told them and vice versa. And here is the simple lesson. Tell people you are struggling. Find your family and your true friends and tell them. Be honest. Let it out. One important condition is that in doing this, is that you let others know that you are there for them too. Let us help each other shoulder the burden. If we fail to do this, we all become islands.
Another strategy that can help overcome the anxiety and pain of hardship is to live presently. Consider the three states of existence as being the past, the present, and the future. The past cannot be undone or revisited, and the future is yet to happen. All there is the present moment of existence, the ‘right now’, minute by minute, second by second. From personal experience I have allowed the past to hold me back during difficult times, largely as a causational factor and one that has added weight like an inescapable rock dragging behind me as I have tried to walk forward. This isn’t to say that the past should be forgotten, in fact this is impossible, but by knowing that it IS past and not present is in itself is a release. Use the past to understand, but don’t give in to its unhelpful mirk.
Equally, the future should be seen as an unhelpful shapeshifter. When we find ourselves in times of hardship, we forward think to try and evaluate the size and shape of future pain, its longevity, and what other tortuous devices it might present us with. Again, this is something I do with regulatory and have to fight hard against it. Things become warped, bent out of shape; they can become absolutely monstrous. I remember during one particularly bad period I use to lay in bed waiting for the beams of the roof to splinter and come crashing down on top of me through the ceiling. However, the reality is is that these things just haven’t happened, and actually, are very unlikely to happen. By and by, this is down to control. We want desperately to control the challenges that may or may not be thrust in our direction. We want a heads up. We want to prepare ourselves for the worst. But to think in this way is unhelpful, adds discomfort, and uses energy that could be better spent elsewhere. Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control.
This leave us with the present. In times of hardship, if we can sail the past and the future down the river, this leaves us with the present to deal with. The important question to ask here is, ‘what can I do, right now, to help myself’. Some of the answers are above i.e. acceptance and sharing experience are incredibly helpful. But also consider that at these times we are flooded with fatigue, nervous and anxious energy, all of which feels and can be very physical. It is at this point more than ever that the mind and body must be nourished. This sounds so simple, but actually, it’s probably one of the more difficult things to achieve. Personally, when I’ve found myself in these situations, I often feel resigned. I let my eating habits slip. I don’t want to exercise. I don’t want to do anything. This is the time to steel yourself. Not doing so just adds fuel to an already ravenous fire. It then easily becomes cyclical, and negatively so. To this end I would say, build a fortress. Make your fortress good food, good habits, good company, and the things that open the birdcage in your heart. Seek out inspiration, seek out shared experience, allow yourself to be selfish in times that you feel it inappropriate or unachievable. This is how you fight back.
So, in conclusion, hardship is inevitable. It’s inevitable for all of us. There isn’t one person on this planet that it wont touch or effect at some point. Know this and think about it. If it’s yet to arrive through your letterbox then have gratitude, but know that it will, and that it will pass one way or another as it does day by day for all of us. If it has arrived, and you’ve overcome it, share your experiences with others. Don’t think that people don’t want to hear it because they do. They do because they will have experienced it as well. Use the strategies outlined above to help you. Don’t be a solo sailor on a deep and unforgiving sea. Those boats are brittle. Instead find solace in the history of our shared existence through which we are all finding our way, one step, one minute, one second at a time.