“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Shortly after a good friend suffered a massive heart attack and survived an eight-hour surgery, I was debriefing the experience with him and asked, “How has all this changed your life?”
“It opened my heart,” he said jokingly. Then the conversation got real, and he went on, “It gave me renewed resolve to live life more fully, more present, and more connected to my feelings and to the important people in my life… This heart attack was probably the best thing that ever happened to me…”
There is something both horrible and potentially liberating about hard times. Adversity—the kind that finds you exhausted, depleted, laying on a cold, hard hospital bed wondering if you are going to be alive in the morning —strips you down, cracks you open, takes you apart, and sets you free.
Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not the way we planned it. Life is the way it is. The way you respond to life is what makes the difference. In the words of the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, “You must be willing to let go of the life you’ve planned so as to have the life that you are meant to live.”
In my leadership development programs, I ask people to reflect on the defining moments in their life, the significant experiences that helped shape and make them who they are today. A good number of life-defining experiences have to do with coming to grips with adversity. It only makes sense. We are meant to learn and grow and evolve in this brief human experience we’ve been given. As such, we can expect some difficult times on the path of life. That’s the beauty of it all. What’s the use of anything that’s too easy? Just as we develop our physical muscles by facing the opposition of weights in a gym, we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity.
The adversity journey, the journey to your authentic self, describes the process of surrendering to a time of great difficulty, allowing the pain to crack us open, so that a stronger, wiser, kinder person will emerge.
Here are three lessons I learned through facing my own adversity:
1. Strip away the non-essentials.
When we’re exhausted and mired in the snake pit of depression, or facing an addiction, or carrying unspeakable grief, or coming to terms with a serious health diagnosis, or confronting a layoff or unexpected divorce, when we are trying merely to survive and make it through another day, we discover that anything not essential begins to strip away like old paint. It served its purpose, but it’s now past its shelf life. Our old identity, our expectations of life, our attachments, everything we thought we had control over – all begin to disappear in the dawning of the light of our true self.
When we abandon the outdated ways we used to define ourselves, we begin to compassionately appreciate the self that would not have been valued without the hardships. We can see what others and the world truly needs, and our unapologetic authentic self gets to work.
2. Embrace the hard stuff.
Life isn’t pretty when you’re in the trenches. Pain gets real when we are pushed to our breaking point and beyond. It hurts to come to grips with loss and fear and powerlessness, or give up hopes and dreams we had for our lives and for the people we care about.
Embracing the hard stuff means refusing to hide or escape. It means facing life on life’s terms. It means shedding blame and getting real with ourselves. It means finding a community who will hold the space to make it safe to be who we are. It means giving thanks for obstacles that became steppingstones, and for those friends, guides, confidants, and family members that helped – and continue to support us – along the way. It means reaching inside and finding a strength and a faith to help get us through and emerge stronger and brighter.
3. Ring the bells that still can ring.
Leonard Cohen famously said, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Ringing the bells that “still can ring,” means bringing your whole imperfect self to whatever adversity you’re experiencing. Your contribution, however small it might feel, is vital. Know that the sound of your bell is needed today. And within our brokenness and imperfect efforts we find that the light of our gifts is our greatest contribution to the world.
Terry Fox lost his leg to osteogenic sarcoma at age of eighteen and underwent sixteen months of treatment. While in the hospital he was overcome with suffering. Not his own, but the anguish he witnessed in the cancer wards, many who were young children. He decided one morning to ring the bell that still could ring. He decided to set out to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. He would call his journey the Marathon of Hope.
His last words were, “If I don’t make it… the marathon of hope must continue.” Continue it did. To date, over $800 million has been raised for cancer research in Terry’s name through the annual Terry Fox Run, held across Canada and around the world.
Disruptive times create an opportunity to get us in touch with ourselves and our world differently. They crack open the old to see a fresh view of living and working and leading. New movements are shaking up old norms. Reconciliation, restoration, and the common good are calling out for our attention. Let’s use whatever adversity or pain we might be going through to reclaim our capacity for meaningful contribution in our communities, workplaces, and institutions. Let’s do our imperfect best to make meaning out of our mess.
I walked a mile with pleasure, She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser for all she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow, And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her when sorrow walked with me.
Robert Browning Hamilton