Did You Really Learn Enough from Your Troubles?
I like the Stoic philosophers a lot. One of the Stoic mantras that has been popularized of late (by author Ryan Holiday) comes from Marcus Aurelius, who said, “The obstacle is the way.” By that, the Roman emperor and philosopher was exhorting those who might be stymied by challenges to understand that those challenges represented the very path laid out by God to reach a higher good. When encountering hurdles in your marriage, your business or any aspect of your journey through this life, he was making it plain that the troubles contained within them the seeds of greater understanding or the key steps to navigate to greater success.
Part of accepting and even celebrating the idea that obstacles represent opportunities is taking the opportunity to mine the past for lessons applicable to the future. For who among us has not endured reversals, loss, betrayal, trauma or suffered the fallout from our own shortcomings? And it is in those very pages and chapters of our life stories that glistening keys to the brightest, next chapters of our lives reside. Seen this way, the great emperor’s words take on added dimension and power: The obstacle is the way, but not just the obstacles in front of us. Those we encountered in the past are part of the way forward, too, if we are brave enough and honest enough and smart enough to dig up this buried treasure.
Freud had it right all along. The examined life is the one worth living—and not for some murky reason of mind. No, the reason is that without examining the past, the present and future cannot be optimized. Understanding and, thereby, neutralizing the obstacles that were in our way—and particularly the ones that tripped us up, that turned us back, that blocked us or bloodied us as we tripped over them—are part of the way forward.
Did someone leave your life and leave you thinking that love can never be trusted? Did someone leave you without the self-esteem to pursue your greatest gifts? Did a fire burn down your home, whether in reality or metaphorically, and leave you thinking even more would be lost if you tried to rebuild? Did you “decide” to settle for less because trying for more tripped you up or toppled your father or mother or sister or brother? Those obstacles are the way forward because reexamining them and reclassifying the “lessons” from them as myths will free you to be everything you can be—the hero of your own life story.
As J.D. Salinger had brilliant Zooey tell his sparkling sister Franny in my favorite novel, “Oh dare to do it Buddy! Trust your heart . . . It would never betray you . . . I’d give almost anything on earth to see you writing a something, an anything, a poem, a tree, that was really and truly after your own heart.”
Where did you lose heart? Go and find it. The obstacle that you backed away from, that you tripped over, that you saw towering so monstrously before you because yours were the eyes of a child or those with the wounds of a child is, indeed and in deed, the way forward.
Dr. Keith Ablow
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