Though our natural inclination is to avoid hardship and suffering, we know that most things of enduring value demand at least some hardship and suffering to achieve them. We know we must learn to struggle, suffer, and overcome hardship, if we are to forge the character necessary to succeed when faced with important challenges in life. A truly fulfilled life must include its share of hardship and suffering. Otherwise, what would we have to be proud of?
Hardship and suffering have many dimensions. Sometimes we actually choose to undergo hardship and suffering, in order to achieve something we want, such as participating in an endurance event, or developing a difficult skill or craft, or going through SEAL training. Other times, we must accept responsibility for having unintentionally caused our own suffering because of a mistake in judgment, or some carelessness or misstep.
But the most difficult suffering to accept, and the aspect of hardship and suffering that I will focus on in this essay, is that which is thrust upon us, by fate, or the negligent or intentional actions of others, or as a result of “acts of God,” such as disease or illness, or the hurricanes and tornadoes we frequently see on the news.
Hardship and suffering can come in the form of physical pain, discomfort, and debilitation, or, most difficult to bear, in the form of psychological stress, sadness, grief, or shame. And when we are in their grip, whatever the source or form, we do all we can to put them behind us, in hopes of finding greater comfort and equilibrium. In so doing, we have some important choices: How do we view and understand our suffering? How do we reconcile ourselves to its cause? How do we choose to get it behind us? How we answer these questions is key to our character, and to defining who we are.
Hardship and suffering are always a test. Whether we choose them, cause them, or they are thrust upon us, they test us – and as such, present an opportunity, to strengthen and shore up our dignity, our self-respect, and our honor – even if it is the last thing we do on this earth.
Suffering that is thrust upon us by fate, or the actions of others often seems “unfair” – we believe we do not deserve it. Our indignation is born of a sense of entitlement to justice in this world, to our just rewards for hard work, good intentions, and good behavior. And yet, we don’t have to look very hard or very far to see that this sense of entitlement, beyond a fairly narrow scope, is an illusion. The story of Job in the Old Testament has much to teach us, as do our daily newspapers, crowded with stories of “undeserved” suffering.
Viktor Frankl’s short classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, tells us that if there is meaning in life at all, there must be meaning in suffering, and it is up to each of us to find it. In his account of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, he describes how those who chose to find meaning and purpose in their suffering, survived in much greater numbers than those who succumbed to despair, or saw themselves as simply victims of gross injustice. “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task…..His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” He wrote of seeing some who knew they were dying, embracing this last opportunity to live and to die with courage, dignity, and honor.
It is certainly inspiring to read of how role models such as Viktor Frankl, or Ernest Shackleton (Endurance,) Louis Zamparini (Unbroken,) LCDR George DeLong (Kingdom of Ice) or Tori McClure (Pearl in the Storm) struggled, persisted and were able to rise above seemingly insurmountable hardship and suffering. And of course, Christ’s stoic response to his suffering with and on the cross continues to inspire many. Each of us however, is faced with our own challenges and hardship on a smaller scale, every day. When a key appliance breaks at home, or someone at work undermines us or our objectives, or we are in a traffic accident – such challenges provide us an opportunity to manage our emotions, maintain our perspective, and to strengthen our will and inner resolve to accept and move on. The Serenity Prayer offers us profound, and simple guidance: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change….”
Additionally, we can purposely choose to get out of our comfort zones and take on hardship, to strengthen our resilience in the face of new challenges. In so doing we take a step toward preparing ourselves to respond with strength and dignity to the inevitable crises and hardship, or perhaps even epic suffering, that life will eventually deal each of us. Resilience and willpower are like muscles, that become stronger with exercise and training.
I recently interviewed Dan Cnossen, a Navy SEAL LCDR who lost both his legs above the knee from a land mine in Afghanistan. He very nearly died of his wounds, and spent a year in Bethesda Naval Hospital in physical and psychological therapy. He said his recovery was often one step forward, two steps back, but he persisted. He still struggles, but he is looking forward to a rich life – without legs – and is now a Paralympian, training to compete in 2018 in the biathlon.
And yet, Dan had unknowingly prepared himself for what became the greatest challenge of his life. He had chosen the crucible of the US Naval Academy; he had spent years participating in grueling endurance events; he had chosen and succeeded at SEAL training; and he had served for years as a SEAL officer. He had learned to accept failure as never final, to find dignity in his unremitting efforts to deal with and overcome hardship and suffering. These lessons served him well when fate gave him the most intense suffering of his life. He was forced to call upon reserves of strength and resilience he didn’t know he had. Then he became a leader in Ward 5-East at Bethesda Naval Hospital, coaching fellow patients who had not “trained” as rigorously for their suffering, helping to guide them in their struggles to not succumb to despair and hopelessness.
Hardship and suffering can also teach us how important our fellow man, friends and our community are to all of us in times of great difficulty. We must learn when and how to ask for and receive help, when we’re truly struggling. For many of us, that can be very difficult, but it is a very important lesson to learn, and it can be very powerful.
We are all in the arena – our own personal arena – and we experience different challenges every day when things don’t go our way. We should realize that how we respond to routine frustrations and challenges today sets the stage for how we will respond to greater challenges tomorrow. As I watch my parents and their generation deal with the hardship and suffering that accompany moving into old age, I realize that as the Buddha said, to live and to choose life ultimately, is to suffer. We define ourselves by how we deal with our own hardship and suffering.
It is for us to ask ourselves: Do we suffer as victims? Or do we accept our day-to-day hardships and suffering as challenges and opportunities to help us prepare to rise above whatever life has in store for us?
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity to a deeper meaning to his life…..Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” Viktor Frankl, from Man’s Search for Meaning
NOTE: There is an important caveat to this essay. This approach to dealing with frustration, hardship and suffering may not apply to those who suffer from severe depression, PTSD, or other psychological afflictions that significantly impair a person’s will, rational processes, or emotional functions. In these cases, professional help is almost always an imperative.