There are seemingly endless stories about people (most of them famous in their own right) who were confronted by significant challenges who went to extraordinary measures to overcome them. There are as many stories — both from those people and those who write/speak about those people — teaching us what they learned along the way; valuable lessons that stuck with them the rest of their lives.
They’re wonderful, inspiring stories. Sometimes, they’re inspiring enough to aid us through overcoming our own obstacles. Sometimes, the lessons they learn stick with us our entire lives.
And sometimes, they don’t.
Sometimes, we read about the larger-than-life women and men who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds then actually feel worse about ourselves. Like we’ll never measure up to a real or perceived ideal of what overcoming significant barriers looks like. Like our challenges are smaller than theirs and we still don’t have what it takes to overcome them.
Much of the time, we’re our own worst critic. We watch or learn about others succeeding. We admire them, perhaps even put them on a pedestal, but won’t or can’t see ourselves accomplishing even the pale comparisons in our own lives.
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When my wife had Thyroid cancer, a good friend and running partner took me to a difficult trail. I’d never hiked it before, and on that day we were going to run it. My friend’s wife actually died during her own battle with an aggressive leukemia, but those attending her in the emergency room were able to revive her. Thankfully, she’s still with us today.
On that run, I spent a lot of time marginalizing myself. My wife’s cancer wasn’t that serious, I said; nowhere near what my friend’s wife (and their entire family) had to deal with. My wife’s doctor caught it really early.; her chances of complete recovery above 99%.
But the journey through her cancer was extremely difficult for me. As I’ve written many times before, I lost my mom to cancer when I was young. Just the thought of the possibility of tackling life’s challenges without my wife by my side was almost more than I could handle.
On that run, my friend taught me a very important lesson. He said, “you’re running your own race. Stop comparing your journey to anyone else’s. You can’t live theirs any more than they can live yours.”
My friend guided me to a rock and invited me to sit down. He told me how many times he had sat on that rock to cry while his wife was in isolation in the hospital; their two young children being cared for by family members.
I cried hard for what felt like a long time. My friend stood by, but at a distance.
It was my race to finish; my obstacle to overcome.
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Whenever we’re faced with any kind of challenge in life, regardless of the intensity and duration, we have three options: try to run from it, do nothing, or strive to overcome it. While difficult, the greatest lessons always come from striving to overcome.
Woodrow Wilson had the attitude that “the only use of an obstacle is to be overcome.” While I agree with President Wilson’s assessment, how we experience trials and what we gain from them are deeply personal.
In particular, when challenges are protracted and difficult, some days (or months or years) can only be survived by metaphorically curling up into a ball and just living through it. Sometimes, the trials are so terrible that all we can do is just survive with no thought what we can, might, or should learn from the experience.
Whenever possible, we come out better on the other side when we can learn a lesson or two from the things we suffer. Striving to learn something is generally better than just surviving and is certainly better than complaining and certainly better than giving up. Of course, that’s not to say we shouldn’t complain. Sometimes, complaining is where we have to start then we look up from there. The important thing is not to become so mired in self-pity that we have no option to learn from the difficulties of our lives.
As we all know, difficult times will come. How we approach those difficult times is key to how we can measure our own character.
Dr. Ben Carson said:
Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them. And if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next.
It’s difficult to keep in perspective, but all trials, no matter how trivial or serious, can either be stumbling blocks or stepping stones. We diminish when we only see them as stumbling blocks. We grow when we see them as stepping stones to something greater.
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Thanks for reading!