Joy is a fleeting emotion. Ever noticed that? Like a shooting star, it rises fast and lights up the gloom before it disappears at the height of its glory. Pain, on the other hand, if we are to allow it, will set up house like an unwanted lodger. Joy will always leave us wanting more, but pain will persist long after the cause of complaint has retired.
There’s a good reason for this: adversity helps to create the conditions necessary for growth, whereas the moments of rapture along the way, albeit important, are of an inhibitive quality. They can be weakening and debilitating. The brief loss of consciousness post orgasm, for example, is what the French call, la petit mort – the little death. So, as a tree will grow towards the light, with its branches extending outwards to cast a larger net to catch the rays of the sun, humans seem to do the same for adversity, hardship and injustice. We are biologically predisposed to desire and strive, and it’s only possible to do so in the middle – and not at the end – of an arduous journey.
All life enhancing endeavours will have a weight of energy behind them. Confidence in one’s own powers; belief in the virtue of a desired outcome; a measure of enthusiasm to overcome the drudgery in our path – these are just some of the mental faculties needed to successfully navigate through life. Though maintaining a sense of direction is far from easy, especially in such turbulent waters, the alternative is to merely drift downstream for a long time; perhaps forever. One course entails hardship and privation, the other, ease and comfort.
On the face of it, the latter appears more appealing, but it’s simple physics that energy requires some resistance, some push back, some sort of deficit to be redressed, some goal to be attained. And what are humans but little pockets of energy? Paradoxically, then, a state of perfection is a bad thing, perhaps the worst of things, because in a perfect world there would be no reason to do anything. A protracted period without resistance presages aimlessness and lethargy, and there truly is nothing to fear as much as aimlessness and lethargy. Pent-up energy will eventually make the mind suffer cruelly.
Therefore, resistance can be a blessing because it heralds life affirming qualities and results. Any kind of adversity – affliction, torment, loss, injustice – can give us focus, a reason to go on, a target for all our efforts. Certainly, there are positives dormant inside every negative if we only awaken them and give them expression.
Problems arise when we cease to use the basic building blocks of life as material for experience and development; rather, allow them to become all-consuming. As if the concentrated anguish from a wardrobe of circumstance clothes our existence and turns our life into a continual waking nightmare. Here, what makes us suffer is not that there’s unpleasantness and there’s likely to remain unpleasantness – it’s the tyrannical nature of the thoughts and feelings that arise from the unpleasantness.
Too often we behave as if we were the audience and not the director. We must realise that a large part of life is not really about what happens to us, of which we can have little control, it’s about how we react to what happens to us, of which we are in full control. Once we establish that the sickness of adversity is a natural human state, we are better to diagnose a cure. Instead of trying to avoid the kind of maladies that drive us to bury our virtues in a grave of oblivion, they should encourage us to erect such a monument that casts a noble shadow of a life well lived.
When you turn diamonds in the light, they change colour, but they are still the same diamonds. Our perceptions are like this. They can always change, if not the things themselves. It’s a great comfort to know that almost anything in life can be transformed with a change of outlook. What sense is there to be like Sisyphus and labour on the things that blight us or to throw our efforts into interminable struggles? Much better to turn the tables: to embrace, work with, and use the things we can’t change for personal growth. After all, we can see that all sorts of foul and abominable things can be necessary in life, for in the course of time, the way manure is converted into fertile earth, they can become useful.
There’s somewhat of the gambler’s paradox about us: it’s only the possibility of disappointment that will make something so compelling. If everything went our way, all the time, our existence wouldn’t be so much of a page turner, it would be at once the most high flown and stalest of fictions. When we lament misfortune, we fail to see this bigger truth: that there is no hope without despair, no thrill without risk, no heroine without a villain. Absolute justice is empty of everything.
While the boundaries between things are largely illusory, abstractions are inseparable. In the Sisyphean attempt to eradicate grievance and injustice and danger it follows as a corollary that we go some of the way to eradicate the antithesis of grievance and injustice and danger. To sieve an environment of all harm is to sterilise it of all life. Can anything more absurd be imagined? Yet this is the spirit of the age. For example, unless we suffer from a morbid fear of salt, it’s quite impossible to be brave sitting on the sofa eating potato chips. How unfortunate it is that it takes danger to be brave! But what are we to do, outlaw bravery? Only a society of wimps would do such a thing.
There is a tremendous amount of latent power in adversity waiting to be unlocked. It has the capacity to both create a potential life we want as well as destroy the life we have. When we reflect on our lives, we should see that it was the trials and tribulations that make us who we are, for better or worse. To fulfil our potential, we would be wise to not wallow in fears and tears.