How to Have Hope When Things Are Hard
Last Sunday night, I woke up with a bad pain in my stomach.
It was familiar. I've been dealing with some version of this problem for the past few years. This problem was a result of antibiotics, gut bacteria, stomach acid, blah blah blah...Like I said the pain was familiar. But there was another feeling. It felt like my heart was hard and tight.
I reminded myself that more pain means less suffering. I turned towards the feeling. And as I turned towards it, I saw it for what it was. It was a deep welling of grief mixed in with anxiety. As uncomfortable as the stomach pain was, what really hurt was this...feeling.
I was a helpless animal trapped in the cage of my body. I felt as if I couldn’t do it. Like I was too weak. Like I wasn’t strong enough to handle it anymore. Eventually, I somehow put the thought out of my mind and fell asleep.
When I woke up that morning, I felt embarrassed by the helplessness that I had felt. My body was experiencing some sort of anticipatory mini-trauma. But I lived a relatively good life. Sure, these chronic health issues were tough, but I thought of myself as a strong warrior. I wasn’t willing to admit that I was helpless.
So I hunkered down and tried to solve this rationally and logically.
I was suffering from a lack of hope. And I would cure it just like anything, with some googling. In this case, I googled things like “How to have hope when things are hard.”
Eventually, I came across the story of the four-minute mile and instead of giving me hope... It left me with more questions.
The four-minute mile was thought to be impossible. Like literally, physically impossible.
For much of the course of human history, people have tried to break it… but couldn’t.
Then, in 1954, one man did. His name was Roger Bannister, and he became world famous.
Here is the interesting thing, however. The thing that was impossible was now possible.
Less than two months later, somebody else ran less than a 4-minute mile and then within a year a bunch of people. Now, more than a thousand people (even high schoolers) have done the four-minute mile.
One man broke an unbreakable limit, so other people realized what was possible.
When we look at people like Roger Bannister, we marvel how people can make the impossible possible.
A HBR article I was reading about Roger’s 4 minute mile puts in his feat into context
Bryant reminds us that runners had been chasing the goal seriously since at least 1886, and that the challenge involved the most brilliant coaches and gifted athletes in North America, Europe, and Australia. “For years milers had been striving against the clock, but the elusive four minutes had always beaten them,” he notes. “It had become as much a psychological barrier as a physical one. And like an unconquerable mountain, the closer it was approached, the more daunting it seemed.”
Think about that. That’s mind-blowing.
This story amazes me, because Roger somehow had the audacity to believe the four minute mile was possible. He psychologically broke through when nobody had.
The question is... How?
Today in my newsletter I’m going to do something different. I’m going to explore the answer to that question.
Many of us are struggling to be resilient. And then there are others who seem to be naturally resilient. When life punches them down, they get up immediately. But how?
My googling all these years didn’t help. It could not give me the long-term optimism that I needed.
My body was falling apart. I could not eat food. I was sick. In pain. And my optimism had disappeared.
I slowly realized I had to confront the obvious. I was weak. I was trapped in a body that was crumbling.
I asked, "How could I be strong when I am so weak?"
After reading about Roger, I initially thought he had a stronger brand of optimism. He had convinced himself that the external reality he saw was not true. He used his mind to distort reality.
Athletes and celebrities love talking about this Law of Attraction stuff. “The Secret” is that if we think optimistically enough, things will just happen for ourselves.
I couldn’t tell if it was bullshit I mean it worked for others, right? Maybe I wasn’t doing it “right.” My optimism always failed. And so I thought the problem was with me.
It turns out the problem was with optimism.
I read a story in the book Good to Great about Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was a “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war during the Vietnam war. He faced an incredible amount of suffering and torture in the eight years.
Many years after the war he was asked by the author of the book, Jim Collins, which men did not make it out of the war prison. His answer was surprising. He said “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.”
Stockdale explained that the optimists died of a broken heart in the prisoner of war (POW) camps because they believed they would be out by Christmas, but Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they would say they would be out by Easter, but Easter would come and Easter would go. Then it was Thanksgiving and so on, until finally they lost all hope and gave up on life.
Stockdale made me realize that optimism was just a way I could deny my reality. I had to face the truth.
Once I ripped off the existential band aid, it brought me some clarity.
Most people live blindfolded. They don’t want to know the truth about themselves or the world. Addiction of any and every kind (whether that's something like drugs or something like social media) is a way to escape yourself... To surrender responsibility.
And look it makes sense because responsibility is a terrible burden to bear.
It means recognizing how fragile your body is. It means reminding yourself that we are creatures with faulty bodies.
Admiral Stockdale put it best: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail - which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Roger could have seen the physical limits with trepidation or apathy. He could have not tried or given up halfway through. But instead he saw an opportunity.
Roger was a reality creator. He created his own reality by focusing on the actions he could control to push the limits of what was possible. He didn’t optimistically believe in something that was true. Actually, he saw something that was more true than the experts did. He literally changed the definition of truth.
In Roger’s mind, he didn’t make the impossible possible. All he did was show other people the possible was possible. He didn't have an optimistic distortion. It was a radical self belief—a faith— grounded in truth.
Maybe all we need to learn is how to see things for how they really are. Or alternatively to see things as how they are useful to us.
I remember the first time I enjoyed working out. In the past, I HATED working out. But I remember grinning like a psychopath after a great session.
I still felt the pain when I worked out my muscles. But instead of making me feel weak (like it did before) it made me feel strong. I saw the pain as growth. I saw the good within the bad.
I could do the same thing with my stomach.
It was hard dealing with my stomach because I had a bunch of questions that had no answers. Most of all, how can I be strong when I’m so weak?
But the really important questions in life have no answers. The only answers we have to these questions are self-made cliches. We must lean on these cliches and other people when the times get tough.
There is no reason. Only faith.
All we can do is see the terrible reality and choose how we interpret the reality.
Being a warrior doesn’t just mean just being a strong person.Being a warrior is a reaction. It is strength in the face of suffering, evil and pressure. It’s the courage to take the existential band-aids off and face the reality of our lives. Most of all, it’s responsibility.
It’s the same with my stomach. I thought I was being weak, but actually I was strong. It was like I was working out. The pain was real, but I could have faith that no matter what, I would alchemize it into growth.
After a few days I experienced that familiar stomach pain, but I didn’t experience that other feeling.
I abandoned hope. I abandoned optimism. I replaced it with something better.
Now, I have faith. I am a warrior. I’m strong.
Now, I’m me.