The Harder Life Gets, the Softer We Need to Be

When we brace against life's bumps, we feel every stone more deeply
July 30, 2020 Updated: July 30, 2020
When life gets hard and things go wrong, the most counterintuitive and seemingly impossible choice is to relax and find ease with what’s happening. After all, why would we relax when life feels out of control?
When difficulty arises, we brace against it. Our resistance is a way of saying that we’re not okay with reality and we want something different. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way, and these feelings of unease don’t help.

These days, with four broken bones in my foot, I’ve taken to tooling around New York City on a knee scooter. As you might imagine, the ride is bumpy. My scooter is no mountain bike; its wheels are small and fragile. It takes nothing more than a twig or pebble to tip it over. I’ve gone flying numerous times, landing on my broken foot in excruciating pain.

As I’ve gotten more skilled as a scooter pilot, I’ve noticed something important about what makes for a harder ride. It seems that the rougher the road, the more precarious my path, the tighter I would grip onto the handlebars. I would tense my body and brace against the jostling of my tiny vehicle. I became more rigid in body—and mind. As a result of the chronic bracing and constriction, I ended up with a spasming upper back and strained pectoral muscles, which made taking a deep breath impossible.

But after a while, I noticed that if I opened my hands and loosened my grip when the bumps came, I didn’t tip over. I learned to relax my upper body as the scooter tried to right itself in the uneven terrain. I just had to allow the bumping, tilting, and shaking to happen. The scooter would adjust and find its way through without my having to fight against it, or break anything else along the way.

It brought my attention to an important understanding: In life, when the road gets rough—as it has been for all of us of late—we tend to brace against it and try to control it. When we lose our job, the doctor calls with bad news, or a pandemic arrives, we tense our minds and bodies to fight against it. The more difficulty life delivers, the tighter we grip onto what we know, which is often an imaginary sense of safety and permanence. We cling to an idea of what we had and what we’re losing. The more flexibility life demands, the more rigid we become—and the more we suffer.

When life throws us a curveball that hits us smack in the knee, we suffer from our smashed kneecap, as well as from the thought that this shouldn’t be happening to us. We “shouldn’t” get hit in the knee, we don’t deserve that, this is not the life we signed up for. We get stuck in the idea of what our life “should” look like. We fight against reality, but reality has no interest in our protests, and reality always wins.

When difficulty arrives, we’re temporarily shattered out of our delusion that we are magically protected from hard times. But rather than accept this, we continue to imagine that challenges are happening specifically to and against us. We feel punished, victimized, and deprived of what we deserve. We feel burdened with difficulties that we “shouldn’t” have to endure. The result: We suffer more.

So, what does loosening our grip on the handlebars look like in real life? How do we roll over the bumps in the road without bracing against them?

To begin with, we stop fighting with the truth. We release the idea that this can’t be happening. Whether we want it or not, this is our reality. The bumps are there. That doesn’t mean we like the bumps or stop doing what we can do to make them better. But the sooner we accept our reality, the sooner we can start adapting to it and righting ourselves within it.

More than anything else, we need to release this dangerous and damaging idea about the way our life “should” be. We must see that our life is not inherently different from all other lives and somehow protected from pain. We are not entitled to a life that is without big bumps.

To wish for a smooth and easy life, without great hardship, is natural and healthy, but to be tortured and feel punished by the fact that our life is like other lives, with its share of suffering and struggle, is to force ourselves to suffer more than necessary. Human life includes hardship. You are human. You do the math.

Releasing our grip on the handlebars requires acceptance. This bump, or crevasse in our path, is not something we can control; it’s bigger than us. What it’s doing here, why the universe put it in our path, we may never know.

To move forward involves the profound step known as surrender. When we truly surrender to the fact that we cannot wish, work, buy, pray, seduce, or strategize this challenge away, we begin a path to a smoother ride with a different sort of serenity.

Simultaneously, relaxing in the face of difficulty includes considering the possibility that there might be something for us to learn from this bumpy path.

While this broken pavement is a huge and scary obstacle now, perhaps something in all this turbulence can serve us later and help us grow. Perhaps something in all this difficulty and pain will help us be of service to others. While we can’t yet know what good might come from this hardship, staying open to this possibility can help us relax and roll with more ease.

As you roll through your life and encounter the bumps that every life contains, contemplate what it might mean to loosen your grip on the handlebars. Ask yourself what that would look like. See if there’s a way to let go of your fight with reality, no matter how much you may dislike it.

What’s certain is that when we brace against the challenges of life, reject our human vulnerability, and fight against reality, we strain other muscles, break other bones, and ultimately, suffer more than we have to.

Counterintuitively, when we give ourselves the gift of relaxation and acceptance—when we roll with our situation—we offer ourselves the smoothest ride possible on an inherently bumpy path. Strength and toughness are great attributes, but it’s our ability to relax and roll when life gets hard that ultimately determines our resilience and well-being.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com