There are situations we find ourselves in from time to time where great hardship has been imposed upon us. This could be like the sudden loss of a loved one, a destructive natural disaster, or a unexpected diagnosis of cancer.
And there are situations of hardship that we volunteer for, like choosing to participate in an extreme endurance sporting event.
The kind of suffering we experience in involuntary hardship and the intensity of it is different and more difficult to bear than the kind of suffering we experience when we’re doing something recreational we’ve chosen to do. We really can’t equate the suffering of enduring a chemotherapy regimen with the suffering of running a marathon or even ten marathons in a row. We cannot equate the suffering of losing one’s livelihood with the suffering of losing a Superbowl.
But, there is something we can practice while engaging in voluntary hardship that can serve us when we find ourselves in hardship we didn’t choose.
We can carefully take inventory of what we cannot control and what we can control, what we cannot influence and what we can. And then we can stay focused on positively affecting the aspects of our experience that we are able to.
There may be some aspects of our circumstances that we can influence, and if there is any hope for positive change, we may want to invest some effort in trying that. We may change our diet or medications. We may change our location. We may change who we hang out with, or who we ask help from. We may change the amount of money or resources we spend on this matter. This is the work of changing things outside our self, of changing the external conditions so that they are more favorable to the outcome we seek.
Then there is our perception of the situation we find ourselves in. We can change the amount of information we pay attention to (sensory information inside the body and inside the mind, and awareness of information coming from our physical and social environment). We can change our interpretation of that information. We can change our response to that interpretation. This is the work of changing things inside our self, of changing the internal conditions so that we are more able to accept and grow no matter what the outcome is.
The common element in both of these is the sense of power to do something about what we are experiencing, making it more tolerable, if not more meaningful. Powerlessness goes hand in hand with misery, and misery leads to decay. Feeling powerful (to affect something that matters to me) is a key to thriving under hardship.
[This is one of the points of what Victor Frankl so eloquently taught us in his short classic Man’s Search For Meaning. This book should probably be on everyone’s ’10 Books To Read In My Lifetime’ list.]
Often the reason that the greater hardships in life are more difficult for us, is that they involve more things we cannot control, compared to what we can. So, the greater the hardship, the more we need to be practiced and ready for changing our perception of the situations we find ourselves in, for taking that perception in a direction that helps us feel more powerful to affect our own experience.
We might not be able to change what we are facing, but we can work on our skill for improving how we face it. This is very hard to do if we’re trying it for the first time in the midst of a great life tragedy. But it will be much easier to apply in harder times if we’ve already been practicing it in milder ones.
Sports that involve risk and suffering are not the equivalent of situations of risk and suffering that we face in daily life. But we may regard participation in difficult sport – in what I think is the ancient and original purpose of it – as the training ground, the playground even, for developing attitude and skills that are required for facing daily life with more dignity and satisfaction, no matter what the outcome may be.
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