Difficulty

Mark Horne writes of strength training:

The rule seems to be that your body adapts so that the most difficult thing you do eventually feels hard to do. As you age this process accelerates. When you give up an activity because it feels hard another one starts to feel hard to do. As your body loses strength you start to avoid tasks and chores that were once easier. You accumulate weakness. In the words of Seneca, “Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility; we cease to be able to do the things we have long been grudging about doing.”

But this is true not only of your body but also your mind and will and spirit: the hardest thing you do feels hard. This leads us to several helpful insights:

First, it helps us sympathize with others who are experiencing difficulty. It is tempting to despise others who have greater difficulty with smaller challenges compared to yourself. However, this principle allows you to sympathize, since you know that difficulty is relative rather than absolute.

Second, this teaches us that contentment, peace, and joy are not primarily related to our circumstances but to our philosophy and outlook on life. Excluding obvious exceptions such as injustice and extreme hardship, this principle reveals that if you are complaining or anxious in one difficulty, you will still be complaining or anxious in other and even lighter difficulties. Therefore, your work to cultivate contentment, peace, and joy cannot wait; you must find deep roots unrelated to your circumstances. And even in cases of injustice and extreme hardship, this reveals that there is a possible path to contentment, peace, and joy even while you wait on, plead for, and pray for relief.

Third, this also indicates a way to grow in our capacity for work and difficulty. It is helpful simply to recognize that difficulty is relative, since you can cultivate gratitude that you are not experiencing greater difficulty. But this also gives you a tool to expand your capacity: you can periodically subject yourself to greater or artificial difficulty, combined with periods of rest and recovery, in order for your current difficulties to become lighter. In the physical sphere, you increase your capacity with sprint exercises, intervals, and progressive loading. Furthermore, growth in self-discipline and capacity in one sphere of life tends to have a side effect benefit across all of life. It is strangely easier to wake up early and to eat well if you are working hard at strength training; there is a kind of snowball effect to growing in health and strength and capacity.

Finally, all this applies not only to yourself but also to how you can lead others to grow in joy and capacity. As Edwin Friedman writes, “increasing one’s pain threshold for others helps them mature.”

Crossposted to I gotta have my orange juice.

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