The first three words in Scott Peck’s huge bestseller, The Road Less Traveled, (first published in 1978) are these:
“Life is difficult.”
You might be thinking, “Well, I don’t need a book to tell me that!”
It’s true: we all have experience with the difficult. Relationships are difficult. But so is loneliness. Having a job is difficult. But so is not having a job. Figuring out who you are and what you believe and what you want to do can be difficult. And on it goes.
But why does Peck start there? I think he believes we do better in life when we face the difficulties and have a strategy for dealing with them–as opposed to just hoping they’ll go away. I like the strategy of the German poet Rilke:
“What is required of us is to learn to love the difficult. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.”
Love the difficult? Seriously?
Well, can you think of a better strategy?
Rilke is talking about embracing the difficult and engaging it as a challenge—as opposed to dreading it, resenting it or trying to sweep it under the rug.
This can apply to small difficulties as well as big ones. And our sense of humor and humanity can be a great help.
Like the wife who (after a quarrel the night before), smiled sweetly at her husband at breakfast and said, “It’s so nice to see you this morning. I was afraid the men in white coats were going to come and take you away.” (They both cracked up.)
Or the woman who told a co-worker she was having problems with, “It seems that you and I don’t get along very well. Could I take you to lunch so we can get better acquainted?”
Fair warning. Even if we follow this strategy, the difficult will still be difficult.
But when we embrace the difficult, it does something amazing.
It helps us grow.
Go into the self-help section of any bookstore today and you can find millions of words on how to affirm yourself, fulfill yourself, solve your problems, find happiness for yourself, etc.
Do you think we are possibly at risk of taking ourselves just a little too seriously?
Do you think it’s possible to make yourself miserable in the pursuit of happiness?
Robert Louis Stevenson suggests a little different perspective on this. He wrote…
“In every part and corner of life, to forget yourself is to be happy, to lose yourself is to be a gainer.”
I think we can sense the value of this:
- The times when you “lose yourself” completely in a task, and you’re so absorbed that you don’t even notice the passage of time.
- The times when you “forgot yourself” to be there for a friend or loved one.
- The joy you get from giving freely, expecting nothing in return.
- The importance of getting over yourself, getting out of your own way.
- People who are successful in long-term relationships often talk about the importance of quickly “turning loose” of arguments and resentments.
Eventually, we will “turn loose” of everything anyway, so why not get some practice now?
Yes, we could approach life with a clenched fist. But Stevenson is suggesting we’ll be happier approaching it with relaxed, open hands.
Maybe we’ll discover that learning to turn loose of yourself…is the best way to turn yourself loose on the world.
Here’s a pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention.
Name one thing that is the only one of its kind in all the history of the world.
The answer? You. You are a one and only.
This is absolutely, undeniably true. There has never been another person in all the world exactly like you. And there never will be.
As Leonard Cohen put it:
“I wonder if my finger prints get lonely in the crowd. There are no others like them, and that should make them proud.”
This means, of course, that you are needed in this world. But you are needed…to be you. The world doesn’t need you to be just like everyone else.
After all, you’ve got a place to fill that no one else can fill. And if you don’t fill it…it won’t get filled.
As Jim Croce, sang:
“Like the pine trees lining the winding road, I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name…and I carry it with me like my daddy did.”
This week, take some quiet moments to pay attention to your uniqueness. Reflect on what’s unique about you…appreciate your uniqueness…maybe take yourself out to dinner to celebrate!
Then look for something unique in someone else. Tell them what you see and why you appreciate that.
(Think how surprised they’ll be!)
Finally, remember Oscar Wilde’s words:
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described sailors on a sailing ship, stuck dead calm in the middle of the ocean without any wind:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
It’s a funny thing, but life can feel that way sometimes. You get up, go to bed, then get up and do it again. Just repetition. It can feel like nothing is happening and you’re going nowhere. No positive momentum.
Ralph Waldo Emerson had an interesting thought on getting the momentum back in our lives:
“We’re all entitled to be valued by our best moments. Let your best moments break through the clouds of routine and shine every day, for these moments are momentous and they provide the momentum to keep your life moving ahead.”
I think Emerson understood that we sometimes de-value ourselves by linking ourselves to our worst moments—our failures, wounds or disappointments.
Those moments may have something to teach us. But they don’t determine our value. And they sure don’t help us build momentum.
Besides, even Olympic champions are remembered primarily for their best moments, so why shouldn’t we view ourselves the same way?
Of course, our best moments aren’t usually rewarded by applause and a medal. In fact, they may be quiet moments…like the moment when you took a tough problem or challenge head on. Or when you defused a tense situation with humor. Or when you faced a difficult situation with honesty and humanity.
But even if you don’t get a medal, there’s something more important that you can get by focusing on your best moments and letting them shine. You get momentum—that sense of a life moving joyfully forward.