Life is Hard.
I kept hearing myself say this over and over again. It was my unofficial mantra. And it was driving me crazy. See, I was teaching English as a Second Language to students about to go into U.S. universities, and they would whine and complain whenever I gave them homework. I kept thinking to myself, “If you think I’m tough, you’re never going to make it through our college system, buddy!”
But instead of pointing out the rigorous expectations of professors across the country, I simplified it and just kept saying “life is hard.” (The underlying message being… “get over it!”)
At some point I realized what I was doing to both myself and my students. I was lying to all of us.
Yes, life can be hard. I learned that early on.
Life was always a struggle for my family. Through poverty and divorce, estrangement and alcoholism, life proved itself to be very hard. It wasn’t until I was almost 15 that I first learned that it didn’t have to be hard.
I clearly remember the day, walking home after middle school. I was rounding the rock that marked “smoker’s corner” where all the “bad kids” would gather and show their rebellion by smoking cigarettes.
I was alone though, no one else was nearby when I had the strangest thought. It was a good day. I was happy.
I was happy?
My young mind, so filled at the time with sorrow, anger and resentment couldn’t quite grasp this new concept.
But it was true. I felt happy.
Now, I’m a big believer that happiness is in the moment and joy is a lifestyle. At the time though, I don’t know if I could’ve reached joy yet.
Happy was as close as I could get. And that was better than most days. So then I started to experiment and see how many “good days” and “happy feelings” I could create in a row. It was a game that kept me going through that most horrible period in anyone’s life – puberty. Ugh. And it’s a practice I maintain to this day, how to find happiness, or joy, in any and all situations. Which leads us to the first truth…
I can choose my own way.
During a particularly rough period in high school, one of my greatest teachers (and I mean that in a bigger sense than being my history teacher in school) gave me a book that would forever alter my life. It was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
(If you’ve never read it, then you must!)
I know, I say this about a lot of books, but seriously. This. Is. It. The one book to rule them all when it comes to working through adversity and hardship.
Even if you’ve never read the book, I can almost guarantee you’ll have heard this one quote or something resembling it, at least once in your life.
“The last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This simple, profound truth is tucked away amidst larger and more visible truths learned from surviving the horrors of concentration camps. Viktor Frankl, being a psychologist before the war, had a unique vantage point from which to understand the terrors he witnessed there. And rather than seeing only the depravity, the unspeakable cruelty and suffering, he also saw the hope, the light and the meaning beyond the pain.
He chose his attitude, which would help him not only survive but return to life after the war.
No matter what turmoil was in my life, I would never know the depths of despair Viktor and those imprisoned with him knew. But the message wasn’t only about overcoming the worst of humanity’s crimes, it was a message of empowering yourself in any situation. Whether it is the shitty job that sucks the joy from your life or the abusive relationship that steals your identity (I’ve had my share of both), you can still retain your power by remembering you can choose your own way.
And finally… the last truth.
Life is what you make it.
Life can be hard, if you make it so. Or it can be amazing, if you make it so. True, there will be some circumstances you can’t control. Like when my parents got divorced and my mother made it harder for everyone. I couldn’t have the situation, but I could be aware of my attitude to it. I could and did go ask the counselors at school for help when I knew I needed extra support through the long custody battle.
But then there are circumstances that are entirely in your control, though it may not feel like it. Such as the time I was stuck in a toxic work environment and didn’t get myself out of it. Instead, I let the circumstances take over and self-sabotaged until I was eventually fired and humiliated. I let my feelings of temporary powerlessness overrule my innate and eternal empowerment and left myself open to more pain and struggle than was necessary.
It’s not always easy to see when the road before you is obstructed by a boulder you can easily go around, or when the road has been washed away entirely and you need to forge a new path. The important thing to remember in times of confusion and chaos is that there’s ALWAYS a path through, no matter what.
Yes, it takes courage to see that. It’s a courage based upon openness and faith. And when you can’t find the faith in yourself or the world, remember that the world always has faith in you. You were created from the stars. So that you can create your to reach for the stars again. Life is AMAZING, if you….
Make it so.