Life is a funny thing. It seems that all our lives we are told that pursuit of happiness should be our life’s purpose. That finding joy, elation, and contentment are the things that will bring us satisfaction in our lives, but as we look back over our own individual histories, I think we often find that the times that formed us the most…the times that caused us to grow most as people…the times that left the most lasting impressions on us weren’t the times of joy and happiness, but the times of difficulty and struggle.
Difficulty works in an interesting way. While it is within our happiness that we may get to just sit back and enjoy, it is not within happiness that we forge ourselves. It isn’t within joy that the strength of our character rises up to meet the challenge. It often takes our adversities to get us to stand and say “No. This is who I am, and this is what I stand for.” And for that, I am truly thankful for all my difficulties. While ease makes almost no impression on us, struggle forces us to grow in ways that last well beyond our experiences of it.
Though I am a white male and have had a relatively easy life, growing up as a gay man I have certainly been no stranger to discrimination. I have experienced what it’s like to be “other.” What it’s like to be called names—to be excluded. I’ve known what it’s like to feel that I would never be able to have a normal life. I’ve known what it’s like to be trapped by fear. Fear that my parents wouldn’t accept me. Fear that my friends would no longer be my friends. Fear that I would never be able to enjoy the life that I wanted. A life with a family. A life with a partner. A life with kids of my own….the most basic things that the majority of people so quickly take for granted.
Our challenges in life have the tendency to divide us. Someone is dealing with cancer. Someone is struggling with the death of their child. Someone is attempting to overcome the emotional abuse of a parent. Someone has just been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Or a thousand other circumstances that all make us feel like we are unique in our struggle. And while each of us does experience these things in our own way, there’s a time when we must realize that our struggle absolutely unifies us. No being on the face of this earth exists without difficulty. And here we can begin to find a sense of community. Of connectedness. Of comfort in knowing that whether we are brown, black, man, old, young, woman, white, christian, or buddhist… we all encounter pain and difficulty. The longer we keep our stories of struggle to ourselves, the longer we must carry their burden, and the longer we let them have power in our lives. In sharing our stories, we lighten our load, and when we refuse to feel shameful about them, we can allow them to positively affect us. As we come around to the idea of this sort of "community," we begin not just to discover our truth, but to forge it--to create it as we make meaning out of difficulty. With a deep opening of our hearts we courageously step toward vulnerability, and we can let that vulnerability empower us to take what is difficult, turn it around, and use it to create a sense of humanity.
That isn't to say vulnerability is easy. To be vulnerable is to admit that we don’t have it all right. To be vulnerable is to admit that we have been hurt, and that we can still be hurt in the future—to admit that we have hurt others. It is to be unashamed of our emotions. To be vulnerable is to admit we’ve made mistakes. It is to open ourselves at the deepest level, stand there in front of someone in the full rawness of our life experience, and have no apologies about it. So while vulnerability is one of the scariest leaps one can take, it gives us the ability to look at another human being and know that they, too, have known pain. It allows us to look at one another and say “It’s ok. I’ve been there, too.”
This experience can truly transform us as people. It transforms our relationships and our outlook on life. It lets us turn things upside down so we can stop saying “I am here DESPITE my struggles” and instead say “I am here BECAUSE of them.” With that, we take the first steps on a long journey toward the discovery of our identities, and we realize it isn't the ease of life but the misfortunes that create the power of our stories. It is within our story of struggle that we find community; from this sense of community we can look for the meaning in difficulty, and I, for one, am thankful for my difficulty. I hope you are, too.