Each person must find their own purpose in life. In fact, finding your purpose is maybe The Purpose of life. There are few fundamentals and universal truths in life, and one of them is that life is struggle. And the purpose of struggle is learning – we should learn from our struggles, otherwise they lose their purpose. Without struggle it would be impossible to learn.
Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite Buddhist philosophers, compares how those attempting to follow Buddhas’ teachings view struggle with the way many of the rest of us do:
“Buddhas and bodhisattvas suffer, too. The difference between them and us is that they know how to transform their suffering into joy and compassion. Like good organic gardeners, they do not discriminate in favor of the flowers or against the garbage. They know how to transform garbage into flowers. Don’t throw away your suffering. Touch your suffering. Facie it directly, and your joy will become deeper. You know that suffering and joy are both impermanent. Learn the art of cultivating joy.”The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, 42 – 43
It’s not easy, of course. But if we were able to see how garbage can be composted and used as fertilizer, we’d see how much better the flowers in our lives would grow. Sometimes that happens almost naturally – like rekindling distant family relations at a funeral that have dimmed over time. But more often it takes concerted effort and focus. I lost my job; what can I learn from that? My father passed away; what can I learn from that? I had a heart attack; what can I learn from that?
We’re Being Refined
The founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, experienced deep and profound suffering: he was persecuted for his beliefs, he and his wife lost five children while they were still young, and he was eventually murdered with his brother by an angry mob. Before his death he remarked that
“I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, … Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.”Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 304
Joseph recognized that the struggle in his life was transforming him into something more refined than what he started as.
The stoic, Epictetus, said:
“Difficulties show a person’s character. So when a challenge confronts you, remember that God is matching you with a younger sparring partner, as would a physical trainer. Why? Becoming an Olypmpian takes sweat! I think no one has a better challenge than yours, if only you would use it like an athlete would that younger sparring partner.”Discourses, 1.24.1-2
I heard someone the other day remark that life’s struggles are similar to weight lifting. Lifting weights literally tears your muscles – that’s the point. Because then the body has to heal the muscles, making them stronger. Epictetus’ comment is like that. Our struggles are how we become stronger. We learn – patience, grit, charity, humility, and many other things through our struggles.
Even in the New Testament, the apostle Peter writes about the struggle of life, comparing it to precious metal: “… the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold …” (1 Peter 1:7). At the end of life, depending on how we approach our struggles, we should value our trials and struggles, more than we would gold.
It’s easy to say these things. It’s not easy to live them. When you go through hard times, even the mundane stuff, life is truly difficult. But perhaps what we should be doing, instead of focusing on just how bad things are, we should instead focus on what we can learn in our struggles. Learn from them so we can help others who go through something similar.
What do you think?
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