From the Rector…
Suffering is hard. In times of suffering and duress, we find ourselves not only embroiled in an unpleasant situation that leads to negative emotions, but we find that we cannot operate at peak levels either. Our reaction time slows, thinking gets a little clouded, decision making is hampered. Those things are normal, but the struggle associated with them is not necessarily natural. Sure, suffering affects us in particular ways. However, those ways are symptomatic of the perception of our suffering, not necessarily the suffering itself.
There is a story about a drowning man who is violently splashing around in his attempt to not go under. A rescuer comes along, grabs the man by the arm, and tells him to stand up. The man has been in waist deep water the whole time. Once he stands up, his perceived threat is instantly gone, and he does not struggle any longer. There is no need. The negative emotions that caused the man to splash around almost caused him to drown. Had he responded to his moment of crisis in a calmer manner, he may well have discovered his ability to stand up and thus never had to struggle at all.
We may claim that outside factors cause us to struggle, but, in truth, it is usually our response to our experiences that determines how much we may struggle. That response is indicative of our mindset. Too often we engage in the world from a place of negativity in which we find ourselves expecting scarcity and threat. Then, when things don’t go our way, we determine that we are suffering and pile woe onto disappointment. This only exacerbates our already tenuous situation, so things seem to go from bad to worse.
I wonder how different our experiences might be if instead of approaching a negative situation from a place of struggle, we approached it from a place of striving. One of my running app coaches encourages me to think about a difficult run not as one in which I am struggling, but one in which I am striving to reach a goal—the completion of the run. My coach says that when you feel like you are having to struggle to get through the run, your breathing will become more labored, your form more tortured, and your pace will slow. But, if instead of dwelling upon the struggle—especially as it becomes more difficult—you shift your mind set to striving and the run will be a lot less challenging. Amazingly, he is right.
I started shifting my mindset to striving to reach certain goals during a run instead of focusing on how challenging it was and I have discovered that my spirit has lifted. I no longer feel weighed down by the intensity or pacing. Now I simply repeat the mantra, “strive not struggle,” as I clock my mileage. The weight of my negativity has lifted, and my runs are more than simply bearable, they have started to improve. I still suffer some aches and pains, but my negative self-talk has begun to dissipate, and I’ve even started enjoying running again.
I’ve begun to translate the “strive not struggle” thinking to other parts of my life. Whenever I feel resistance or get distracted and begin to feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, I stop a moment and repeat my mantra to strive not struggle. I’ve gotten so good at it, that I sometimes even find myself repeating, “strive and thrive” as a new mantra in times of distress. The joy is that even though whatever I am facing may be challenging and tough, I don’t feel like the struggle is defining my expectations or abilities. Now I control and define my experience—even if whatever is causing me to struggle is beyond my ability to control.
I cannot control every experience I have in the world, but I can control my response to it. Struggling only limits my freedom to strive and thrive if I let it. I would prefer not to struggle, not to have challenges or difficulties that limit me or cause the weight of negativity to drag me down. But that is a fairy tale wish. I know we will all struggle at some points in life, but it is what I do with that struggling that matters. In compassion training we are taught to desire not to suffer less, but to be free from suffering—freedom in terms of not being imprisoned by the suffering. The language of “strive and thrive” have helped me release the prison bars that suffering once locked around my heart and my head so that instead of resisting or shutting down as a response to my struggle, I meet it head on and keep taking one step and then another to move through the suffering until I reach the other side.
Light and Life,
P. S. Steve and I are headed to the Holy Land until October 29. We look forward to being back with you and sharing our experience after our trip. In the meantime, I will have limited access to phone or email. Please feel free to contact Drew with any needs or emergencies in my absence.