More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Beauty of Hardship

When I was around 10 years old, I told my parents that “life is hard.”

This wasn’t some kind of joke, or some thing I parroted from a show I watched. I recall saying it because our family was genuinely experiencing hardship, and I observed how my parents were under stress as a result. I won’t go into the details, but for purposes of this reflection, all you have to know is that I viscerally understood that something was amiss.

To this day, my dad thinks about that moment, and it saddens him every time he does. He won’t bring it up often in conversation, but in the rare moments he does, I can see the pain in his eyes as he shifts his gaze away from mine. The ripple of the memory still extends outward to his heart, even though it’s been decades since I uttered those words.

But that’s precisely why that memory still pains him. He thinks that I was too young to understand the truth of life: that existence is hard, and happiness is not handed to you on a silver platter. That hardship is a feature of life, and not a bug.

As a father myself, I can understand where he’s coming from. While my 2-year-old daughter gets frustrated and upset at various things, it’s not because she understands that existence itself is characterized by pain and hardship. She’s simply figuring out that her will isn’t enough to satisfy her wants, whether it’s due to the forces of gravity or me telling her not to do something. Circumstances are informing her that things are difficult, and not the very fact that she’s a human being in this world.

The latter fact is something that a parent doesn’t want their child to realize at an early age. That’s why parents show their toddlers videos of Sesame Street, as opposed to the daily news. You want your child to see the best of what humanity has to offer before peeling back the curtain to see that we’re also capable of doing some ugly things. But the reality is that every person will one day learn this truth, whether it’s revealed to them via history or through a personal experience of their own.

The question then becomes: When? When is it okay for you to learn that hardship is a part of life? Is there such a thing as too early or too late to realize this?

My father would say that I was too early to understand the reality of hardship, but I feel that it happened precisely when it needed to. Not because of my age, but because of the circumstances that led me to this realization. And ultimately, it’s the compounding of circumstance that allows reality to slowly be revealed.

Here’s the thing: Hardship is not annoyance. Or irritation. Or even anger. In fact, hardship isn’t necessarily characterized by a negative texture of emotion. At its core, hardship is the understanding that there’s something to overcome, something to act as the object of your narrow focus. It’s a magnet for your attention in a way that contentment is not.

When you’re content with the way things are, your attention is diffuse. You’re not exerting energy into any one endeavor because there’s no one thing that requires it. Things arise and things fade, and contentment is being satisfied with this ebbing and flowing of all things in your periphery.

Hardship, however, directs much (if not all) of your attention toward it. People under financial hardship often cannot think about anything but money. People under physical hardship often cannot think about anything but their health. With hardship, there is something you’re fighting for or something you’re resisting, which requires you to focus in a way that other states of mind don’t require.

When I told my dad that “life is hard” at the tender age of 10, perhaps it’s because I noticed how hardship was collecting our entire family’s attention for a sustained period of time. My parents didn’t verbalize their situation to us yet, but maybe I felt it in the spaces between their words. In their subtle mannerisms, in their sighs, and so forth. It was clear to me that there was some collective obstacle that we were facing, and we were trying our best to figure out how to navigate it.

By declaring that I understood the nature of the situation, maybe that signaled a loss of innocence. And in the eyes of a parent, I’m guessing that any loss of innocence will seem too early, regardless of when it happens to their child. But in the place of that loss, there is always a gain to balance it. And in this case, it was the gain of resilience.

In the end, our family did end up figuring everything out. There was certainly a messy middle to wade through, but the stress that characterized the start of the journey has now faded into an ambient memory. We overcame that hardship, and it’s only because we galvanized resilience amongst ourselves to view the horizon with optimism.

Hardship is often seen as an opportunity for growth, and there’s truth to that. But sometimes, hardship is a reminder of the things you care about, given that you’re dedicating so much of your attention to overcoming it. It’s a signal that there’s still something worth fighting for, still something to resolve with both ingenuity and resilience.

A few years ago, as we were reflecting on this journey, my mom told us that she often visualized her life’s trajectory as a line with many ups and downs. Lots of joys, lots of tribulations, and everything in between. She wondered if a life with a nice, linear trajectory would have been more pleasant, but then she shook her head and smiled.

“If you zoomed out and saw my zig-zagged line, wouldn’t it look beautiful from afar?”

In the end, perhaps it’s only through hardship where the beauty of existence can fully be revealed.


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A few posts that delve into the lessons of hardship:

The Quest to the Unlived Life

Be Challenged. Not Overwhelmed.

Happiness Is a Serious Matter

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