Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Facing Hardship

I was asked recently to comment on hardships we face in life, whether it is necessary for our progress in the material and spiritual worlds and how to deal with difficulties in life.

As a physician, on a daily basis I see people dealing with hardship. When people come to physicians they usually have a worry about their health and well being or they may have a real health problem. Healthy people with no worries about their health have no need or desire to see doctors.

Hardships come on many levels and is a part and parcel of life. It may be at the physical level due to illness causing impairment, it may be a mental worry about something. Others may have hardships at a spiritual level. An example of this is someone who suffers ill luck at every turn in life would naturally ask the question, “why me and what have I done to deserve this fate?”.

In the material world, even worldly success has hardship associated with it, just like your shadow never leaves you when you are walking outside in sunlight. Some people have to struggle a lot to achieve worldly success such as wealth, name and fame. Others get it without trying too hard. We usually call them lucky. However, hardship is associated with both situations. In the former, hardship is apparent in the struggle prior to achieving success. In the latter “lucky scenario”, hardship may come in the form of the struggle to keep what we have (money, fame etc) when we have to finally depart from this world. This departure has a definite date and time stamp for every one of us. The only problem is that we don’t have any idea when it may come.

Everything is temporary including hardships we face. The air that we breathe in stays in our lungs for a short period of time and we have to exhale it. We don’t have any attachment to the air we breathe in and the air around us has no attachment to us. We cannot, however survive without air. Every breath is a temporary phenomenon. Our lives are based on this temporary phenomenon, the breath. When the basis for our lives is so transient, we can take comfort in the fact that every hardship we face, however severe, is temporary.

What is the reason for the difficulties we face in life? When we look at difficulties, we tend to focus mostly on the negative aspects of it. If you were to take a more homogeneous view, you will find some good things that may come out of difficult situations. When people are faced with a difficult situation it provides an opportunity for introspection. Some find renewed faith in God or their personal beliefs, others lose their faith in God or their long held personal beliefs. Some get angry, sad or depressed. Very few think that something good could come out of difficult situations.

What can aluminium teach us about the good that can come from difficult situations?

Aluminium is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. Despite its abundance, it cannot be used in its natural form. The process of refining aluminium requires heating it in temperatures in excess of 1900 degrees Centigrade. Only after passing through some of these very harsh processing steps it becomes useful. Aluminium is used to make a wide variety of things all the way from beer cans to rockets. Only the purest aluminium is used in the manufacture of planes and rockets. Lesser grades of aluminium are used in beer cans. Where aluminium is used depends on its processing.

You can look at human suffering in this light using the above example. Just as aluminium is found is abundance, human suffering is also abundant. When we face hardships, look at it from the perspective of a form of mental processing which changes our attitudes and outlook on life. Depending on how your mind processes the hardship you face (how your mind deals with hardship and what you learn about yourself while you endure hardship), you come out on the other end stronger or weaker from the experience. Harder the test, more you learn from it. If you mentally succumb to small difficulties in life, you may not be equipped to deal with greater difficulties that may spring up unannounced.

When difficulties arise, people respond in different ways. There are four types of responses.

In the first scenario, some people lack the mental strength and will power to overcome difficulties in life and resign themselves to the negatives associated with hardship, such as anger, depression, loss of faith etc.

In the second scenario, some people are generally successful in overcoming hardships faced in life, but are not able to rise up and smile in the face of difficulties. In other words, they have the strength to overcome difficulties but not enough to look deep within themselves and learn from their experiences. They don’t leverage their experience and turn it into a positive thing in the long run.

In the third scenario, people acknowledge their difficulty, but are mentally strong enough to brush it aside and serve as role models for others.

In the fourth scenario, a rare few do not see what they go through as hardship at all. In the eyes of others they may be suffering, but they simply look at whatever life serves up as a path to be traversed to reach their goal. A good example of such a person is Mother Teresa. She dedicated her life to the service of the poorest of her poor. Her path was extremely difficult in the beginning. She had no money and had to resort to begging for food and supplies. After her passing, she is now on the threshold of sainthood. Her goal was service to the poor and she overcame difficulties by her overriding love for service.

In summary, everything in life including hardship is temporary. Behind every hardship, there is a lesson and an opportunity for self improvement. If difficulties arise and are unavoidable, welcome it with a smile, go within yourself and see what you can learn from it. As long as the difficulty stays with you, practice making it a reminder for constant introspection.