Wednesday, January 13

‘Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.’ Seneca

I’m helping a good friend with home renovations this week (which is my excuse for the longer drift between blog posts). He has a week off in which to get two weeks worth of deconstruction and reconstruction completed, so the days have been long, admittedly longer for him than for me (which is probably a good thing, my 43-year old body is reminding me), but we’ve still managed a couple 12-hour days of framing and dry-walling. Demolition didn’t take as long (which always pushes me towards some interesting observations, but I’ll leave those for today). I wake each day noting my pant size shrink proportional to the stiffness of my back and, well… everything else too. But it’s a good sore, like that earned by a difficult hike or climb: it notes that something worthwhile has been accomplished.

When I was in my early twenties I worked construction and carpentry for a few years and, in terms of job experiences, they are probably my favorite to look back on. As Seneca and countless others have noted; clean, hard labor may not always be the most pleasant task while you’re doing it, but it has very definite virtues. It’s a great workout, but that’s minor. Like climbing, its greater value lies in the combination of a tendency to show up our limitations and possibilities, and the satisfaction of seeing something worthwhile spring into existence before our eyes. There are few things more satisfying to me than to see something my hands have made, something that would not exist were it not for my efforts, at the meager price of some sweat and a bit of stiffness. There is something to be said for ending the day being able to look at what we’ve done, be able to see it and feel it and touch it, to know that we’ve stretched our limitations and maybe even pushed the line back a bit, and know that a good job has been done.

This quote doesn’t say that as well or specifically as some others, but I like that it refers to our minds as well. When I went fishing for a quote today, I was thinking about a) how stiff I was this morning and, almost completely unrelated to a), b) how the circumstances of our lives shape us. Specifically, I was thinking about the 6 years I spent in a bad marriage when I was young, during those construction years, and the motorcycle accident that ended my carpentry days and resulted in at least some of the reason for my current stiffness. I won’t go into details about either, at least not today, but what I found myself thinking for the billionth time was that I was thankful for both of those rather dark and equally life-threatening episodes of my life. I wouldn’t trade a day of them. Without the accident I would never have had to retrain, go back to school after squandering my opportunities out of high school, and wouldn’t be in a position to try to be a writer now. And without the marriage, I might never have been pressured by circumstance to individuate the way I did; to start looking for less comfortable truths and cultivate a healthy dissatisfaction with institutions and the status quo.

When things get difficult these days my first response now, as often as not anyway, is to ask myself what it is I’m supposed to be learning. I’m not suggesting that difficulties exist simply to teach us things – it’s more likely they exist because we did something dumb, forgot something, or made a bad choice – but if we have to experience them, we might as well learn something through them. (It’s harder, but just as valid, to ask the same question when things are wonderful and everything seems to be falling into place: Ease can make us intellectually and spiritually complacent.) Difficulties, however, tend to spawn questions like CNN spawns inane and redundant commentary.

I have to admit; I prefer the ease. But I don’t mind the difficulties so much these days. They remind me that I’m alive and still learning. More specifically, they remind me that I’m about to learn something new, or be reminded of something I should never have forgotten. Difficulties are an opportunity to become better, to ask questions about and of ourselves that probably need answering, to grow and become stronger, and maybe even a bit wiser, even if that wisdom has only to do with our selves. That’s good enough, a good enough reason to labor at hard but satisfying work, and a good enough reason to embrace the hard times in hope of the person they will help us become in the good times.

So, what are we going to learn today?