The Obstacle You Hate is Your Greatest Teacher
Obstacles will always stand in your way. That is a part of life and always has been for us. Dating back to the beginning of Homo Sapiens, we have been confronted with obstacles that will either stop us or push us forward. Looking at how far we’ve come in a relatively short time as a species, it is because we have constantly grown from obstacles. In the span of a few hundred thousand years, we’ve created the entire civilizations that we know today. That’s not happenstance, it’s from dealing with problems head on and finding ways to change.
Obstacles are there to help us grow. Yes, at times, we wish the obstacles we face weren’t there and that our life could be easier. But in the long run of our lives, with the right attitude, we can grow and flourish from the obstacles put in our path. The Stoics viewed adversity similarly to the way a bodybuilder might view weights in a gym: it’s there to help build us if we choose to use it for such.
Choose to Grow Even if it’s Hard
The Stoics preach that we do not control the things that happen in the world to us, but we do control how we respond to them.
Epictetus preached that every situation has two handles:
“Every situation has two handles, as it were, one making it supportable and the other insupportable.”
Epictetus | Enchiridion | Entry 43
With every situation we encounter, we decide whether we want to use the situation to help us grow or to allow the situation to hinder us.
Let Your Will Lead You
Kyle Maynard is a quadruple amputee who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He has lived his life by following his will and not giving in to excuses.
Epictetus was lame according to records. Origen recounts a story wherein Epictetus’ master twisted the slave’s leg until it snapped and broke.
Epictetus would later teach his students:
“Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will unless the will wants to be impeded. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. If you tell yourself this at every occurrence, you will find the impediment is to something else but not to yourself.”
Epictetus | Enchiridion | Entry 9
This is not a “positive” psychology outlook on life. It is deciding what is and is not within our control, and taking action on the things that you can.
Prepare for It Ahead of Time
Much of the frustrations and pains we experience in life are due to ill preparation for them. Our lives are consumed with constant pulling in different directions.
Seneca advises the best way to face adversity is to prepare for it ahead of time. He advises to exercise the adversity you fear each month:
“Set yourself a period of some days in which you will be content with very small amounts of food, and the cheapest kinds, and with coarse, uncomfortable clothing, and say to yourself, “Is this what I was afraid of?”… If you want someone not to be alarmed in a crisis, train him ahead of time.”
Seneca | Moral Letters | Letter 18
“If you want someone not to be alarmed in a crisis, train him ahead of time.” How often do we come face to face with an adversity, conquer it, and realize it wasn’t as bad as we once thought? Practicing the adversity helps us not only plan against it, it helps us become more comfortable with it should the fate befall us. As Seneca famously said, more often than not, things frighten us more than they should.
Accept it, Even if You Don’t Want to
One of the hardest parts of understanding adversity is accepting that we do not always control the things that happen to us. We must accept the event, and choose how we wish to react.
Marcus Aurelius reminds himself of this in Meditations when he writes:
“We need to practice acceptance. Without disdain. But remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.”
Marcus Aurelius | Meditations | 7.3
We may not be able to control the situation. We may not even be able to control the outcome of the situation. But we choose how we respond to it. We first must accept the situation at hand, and then choose how we want to respond to it.
Remember, every situation has two handles.
Be Like a Rock
Our ever-reaching goal in studying philosophy, and especially in studying the Stoics, is to find tranquility in an ever-chaotic world. We want that tranquility when the world seems to be crumbling around us.
Marcus Aurelius uses a metaphor to try and remind himself of the goal:
“To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.”
Marcus Aurelius | Meditations | 4.49
It’s not always easy to hold onto our ideal selves when the world around us is crashing and burning. But having a piece imagery that can remind you of your end-goal can help you weather the storm.