The Gift of Hardship

Our most important life lessons come when difficulties rain upon us
October 8, 2020 Updated: October 8, 2020

“Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” —Og Mandino, World War II bomber pilot

Tribulation. Hardship. Crisis.

What do these words bring to mind when you hear them? Do they conjure up feelings of fear and anxiety, make your armpits begin to sweat, or make you want to run in the other direction? If so, you’re not alone. For many of us, that’s our first reaction.

But what if we looked at our difficulties in a new light? What if, instead of fearing them and trying to avoid them, we viewed our hardships as gifts?

One of the benefits of accumulating years living on this earth is that we realize our most important lessons come not when sailing along smoothly in life, but when we hit rough, turbulent waters. This is when we pause to examine ourselves, reflect upon how we can do better, and take stock of what really matters in life.

I know, I know, I’ve wondered myself, “Why do I always have to learn the hard way?” I guess it’s because the hard way is what makes us most solid and firm, and what brings about the greatest and most enduring changes in our character.

As impactful as self-reflection is, how we view our difficulties in life is also important. Our perceptions have a significant impact on not just our mental health, but on our physical health as well. In fact, some believe our very happiness also depends on how we view adversity.

The Root of Happiness

Stanford University’s Emma Sappala writes that embracing hardship, rather than just merely accepting hardship, is actually the secret to living a happy life. “The Chinese saying ‘Chi Ku Shi Fu’ (eating bitterness is good fortune) highlights the idea that there is the opportunity for wisdom and growth in suffering,” she wrote.

The idea that suffering leads to good things is an inherent part of ancient Chinese culture and wisdom. They believed that our difficulties come from heaven, and that hardships are the only means through which we can truly understand and improve ourselves, and thereby attain virtue and blessings. Being open to this concept is vital if we’re to achieve personal growth.

Sappala goes on to say, “We can either choose to let the negative experiences we encounter bring us down, or we can choose to embrace them and thereby rise above them.” It’s our acceptance of life and our perception of hardship, as well as our response to it, that really matters.

Responding with kindness and compassion, as well as self-control, no matter how we are treated, is required.

“By fundamentally understanding that our life is characterized by contrasts, we can start to experience gratitude and grow to greater levels of well-being, perspective, and wisdom,” Sappala said.

In viewing difficulties this way, we attain a peace of mind and sense of serenity that may otherwise elude us. This is one of the great lessons human beings have passed down, generation after generation, for millennia.

View It Like a Stoic

Ancient China was not the only traditional culture to embrace the inevitability of suffering. The Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome understood this as well.  

Isaac Wechuli, of the site Unbounded Wisdom, discovered the importance of embracing hardship in order to obtain inner peace, which is, perhaps, a synonym for happiness.

Through experience, he came to appreciate the wisdom of Stoicism, as he discovered that no one can escape suffering and hardship, no matter how hard they may try.

“Hardships are, therefore, part of the flow of life,” he said. “Accepting them results in inner peace because we’ll stop worrying when we anticipate hardships, and we’ll never be depressed or stressed when hardships arrive.”

If we examine the lives of the Stoics, theirs are stories of great resilience in the face of tremendous hardship. But they understood that striving to avoid life’s difficulties is futile. Instead, they searched deep within to find strength to weather the storm.

The Stoics focused on living a life of virtue and aligning with the flow of nature. They reasoned that virtue of character, something we always carry, that can never be taken from us, is what matters, while things such as money and fame, which are out of our control and fleeting, should be viewed with detachment.

Psychotherapist Donald Robertson believes that Stoicism has had such a significant impact in his field that he decided to highlight it in a book titled “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.” He seeks to apply the wisdom of Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to life’s modern-day problems.

Robertson points out that the way we frame things plays a big role, saying, “If someone is anxious in a meeting, they’ll say, ‘That guy shot me down in flames.’ They could just say, ‘Oh, he expressed disagreement with me.’ This is very obvious when you’re working with clients in therapy, but when you describe the same situation in more value-free, more objective, matter-of-fact terms, it often seems much less distressing. … The Stoics were very aware of this problem.”

Do you notice how the two phrases affect you differently?

We learn from the Stoics that the biggest determinant in the course of our lives is not the situation, but rather our reaction to it.

To a Stoic, nothing has any value outside of our own reasoned choice about what it means to us personally. This approach robs external events of their power over us, and places the power in our own hands, or should we say, minds.

A Universal Tie

It may provide some comfort to know that hardships affect us all. These difficulties seem to be the great equalizer in life—no one is exempt.

Those who have achieved great success always have stories of hardship and failure, as things of true value rarely come easily.

For example, Thomas Edison endured over 10,000 failed attempts before achieving success. When asked by a reporter about his failures, Edison replied: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Many would have given up long before 10,000 tries, but because he viewed his failures as valuable lessons, rather than failures, he kept trying.

Winston Churchill also had his share of hardship. He lost five elections during his political career, battled depression, and had a lisp that made giving speeches, and even speaking, difficult at times. However, Churchill went on to become one of the most successful politicians and orators the world has ever known.

Difficulties and hardships come in all shapes and sizes, and each of them serves as both a test and a lesson for us.

Today, we’re dealing with COVID-19. And while this crisis has been devastating in so many ways, there are lessons to be learned.

Adriana Bankston, the principal legislative analyst at the University of California Office of Federal Government Relations, recently reflected on this in a post on Inside Higher Ed.

“The optimist realizes that every adversity is an opportunity for personal growth and may focus more on encouraging others. The optimist also has the ability to look into the future and realize the long-term consequences of their choices,” she writes.

Uncovering Our Strengths

Tribulations can reveal parts of ourselves that we may not have even been aware of—both good and bad. By acting as a catalyst to uncover these things, hardship can help us correct and improve the things that are not in alignment with our values, while strengthening what we’d like to develop.

Wechuli notes, “Epictetus, one of the famous Stoics, wrote, ‘What would become of Hercules, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar, and no criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of challenges? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crisis or conditions to stir him into action?”

Indeed, it’s during life’s difficulties that we must dig deep, find strength, and develop our wisdom. Perhaps many of our noble traits would lie dormant, or would not reach their full potential, were we not challenged to use them.

It is in times of hardship that we have an opportunity to improve ourselves. We are made to face our fears and have a chance to do the right thing in spite of them.

Perhaps no group better exemplifies this than the World War II generation. Samuel Baxter wrote in “’Days of Adversity’: Lessons From the Great Depression” that “those who weathered the Great Depression are famed for their work ethic, tenacity, ingenuity, and character. What about the 1930s caused this group to later be dubbed the ‘Greatest Generation’?”

Alison Ensign, on Family Search, adds to the conversation, noting that despite, or perhaps because of, the hardships this generation endured, they have a strength and resilience not found in other generations. She points out that they exhibit many admirable characteristics, such as a sense of personal responsibility, humility, frugality, a strong work ethic, commitment, integrity, and self-sacrifice—all traits of a strong moral character.

Maybe enduring hardship actually is good for us. By facing our fear and pain rather than seeking a life of comfort and ease, we learn and we grow. In fact, it is the very obstacle that we see in our way that is the path—the path to letting go and attaining wisdom. When we can do this, we are free—for nothing outside of us can control us.

Embracing Adversity

When encountering difficulties, we should seek to be like nature. Even in times of calamity, when all seems lost and the destruction seems complete, sprouts shoot up through the charred forest remains. Life goes on. Nature doesn’t cease pushing forward in the face of disaster, nor should we. Nature teaches us endurance and resilience, even when all hope seems lost.

When we follow what life naturally brings, rather than trying to resist, we can learn the valuable lessons contained therein. Hardships do not come without reason. We are being given a gift, a chance to improve ourselves.

I’ve found that when I flow with what comes, things work out best. Despite my desire to sometimes avoid difficulty, or have things go a certain way, when I can put this aside, and go with what life brings, I improve.

Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we may think our hardships are too much for us to bear, and feel hopeless at times. But if we take a step back, we’ll find our troubles are really much smaller than we’d originally believed.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca understood that “a gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”

As bad as it may feel now, it won’t be this way forever, and when we look back, the hardships we’ve endured will have lost their sting. Keeping this in mind is important, because our mind can make things much worse than they actually are. We’ve all overcome tough times before, and we’ll do it again.

To quote Epictetus, “The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”

As I see it, we all have a choice. We can choose to look at hardships as failures and misfortunes, view life as unfair, and blame others for our miseries. Or, we can choose to see hardships as the opportunities that they are: opportunities to strengthen our resilience, endurance, empathy, courage, tolerance, patience, forgiveness, and our ability to sacrifice. Hardships give us our best chance to improve our character. There are just so many good things to be gained, and so many bad things to be discarded.

What path we choose is ultimately up to us.

Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.