September 16

Life is So Hard — Or is It?

September 16, 2009

Personal Growth

“Life is hard.” “Life is pain.” How many times have we heard these words? And there’s the bumper sticker that reads, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

In the course of our lives, we certainly are presented with experiences that create a wide variety of potential obstacles, but the truth is, we determine how difficult our lives are by the choices we make.

Years ago I took a large group of older Boy Scouts on a canoeing expedition to the Snake River in Idaho. I was aware of the challenging reputation of this section of the river, so for many months before we left I gave the boys considerable instruction in swimming, lifesaving, canoeing, camping, and other skills they would need. I explained that what they were learning would make their adventure both safer and far more enjoyable. I did not push them to learn anything but simply said that if they chose not to learn, the consequences of their ignorance would almost certainly be unpleasant. Nearly all of the boys were eager to learn everything they could, but a few listened half-heartedly and prepared themselves poorly.

When we arrived at the river, it was everything it had been advertised to be. In many places the descent of the canyon was quite steep, so the water moved very swiftly and created violent rapids that crashed against the many rocks and boulders that lay in the river bottom. The swirling water created eddies and whirlpools that were easily capable of entrapping and submerging a canoe and its occupants. These combinations of water and stone were quite capable of killing people — by direct trauma or by drowning — and had done so on many occasions in years past.

How did the boys respond to this? It depended on their preparation and their subsequent choices. Most of the boys had thoroughly absorbed the lessons of the previous months, so they were prepared for the river and had a wonderful time. They guided their canoes expertly through the passages in the rapids and avoided the perils that thrust up at every angle in the maze of jagged boulders. Rather than being afraid, they were exhilarated as they flowed along with the great force of the river, quite aware that they were constantly flirting with the cusp of danger.

A few boys, however, had prepared less diligently and chose to make decisions that were less wise about their paddling and their course in the river. These boys had little control over their canoes and were soon slammed by the current from one rock to another until their canoes tipped over, throwing them into the fast-moving — and cold — water. We fished them out of the water and retrieved their canoes for them, only to repeat the process more than once when they fell out again.

For many boys, this trip was the greatest adventure of their lives, and they reminisced about it for years — with me, with each other, and with their families and friends. For some of the boys, however, the trip was just another in a long line of huge inconveniences and sources of discomfort and irritation.

Observing the experiences of all the boys, I couldn’t help but conclude that the river itself was not “hard.” It simply flowed, providing opportunities for people to make choices. Some of them chose wisely and had an exciting and enjoyable experience, while others chose foolishly and suffered the consequences of unhappiness and even injury. Life works the same way.

Throughout our lives, the current of time rushes on inexorably, taking us past the jagged edges of experiences that can either be exhilarating or tear us to pieces. It’s not the current itself, however, that determines the outcome of our lives but the choices we make. In the absence of Real Love, we fight and claw for every available morsel of Imitation Love. We protect ourselves from every injustice and injury, real and imagined. We bounce from one rock to another, exhausted, fearful, angry, and bleeding, and life seems “hard” indeed.

But we can learn to choose more wisely. We can choose to take responsibility for our mistakes and feelings. We can choose to find and share unconditional love, and as we make these choices we float with relative ease and without pain past the rocks that would otherwise injure us. We float past the whirlpools that would suck us in and drown us. We can choose to avoid fear and anger and choose instead to live a life of faith and love.

This is not a hopeful fantasy. On many occasions, I have seen many people make these wise choices. I have watched them laugh as they have sailed past the rocks and other dangers of life that previously would have tipped them over into the cold, miserable water, where they would have complained that life was “so hard.”

Happiness is a choice. If you’re finding that life is hard, that is a choice too. But you can begin to make different choices. One step at a time, you can tell the truth about yourself instead of blaming others, or acting like a victim, or withdrawing. You can choose to understand people instead of criticizing them.

As we make these choices, we shed the heavy burdens of anger and bitterness. We discover that life can be beautiful and free and relatively easy. In the beginning, these decisions and this way of living may seem a little strange — even frightening — but if we exercise faith and persist, we soon experience the rewards. We begin to glide by the rocks and whirlpools of life, instead of being crushed and drowned by them, as we have experienced so often in the past.

As we immerse ourselves in the truth we discover that we create opportunities to receive unconditional acceptance and love in our lives. And it comes naturally and without any effort at all. Soon we gain the capacity to share this love with others, and under these conditions — receiving and giving love — life isn’t hard at all. It’s pure joy, even when the circumstances around us appear to be challenging, even when the current is swift and the rocks are many.

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