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Your Obstacles Are Trying To Teach You Something

Daily Stoic Emails

One way to go through life is to turn away from the things that are hard. You can close your eyes and ears to what is unpleasant. You can take the easy way, forgoing difficulty whenever possible. The other way is the Stoic way—it entails not only not avoiding hardship, but actively seeking it out.

In the novel Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian write to young Marcus Aurelius about his philosophy for learning and benefiting from all of life’s adversity and unpleasantness. “Whenever an object repelled me,” he says, “I made it a subject of study, ingeniously compelling myself to extract from it a motive for enjoyment. If faced with something unforeseen or near cause for despair, like an ambush or a storm at sea, after all measures for the safety of others had been taken, I strove to welcome this hazard, to rejoice in whatever it brought me of the new and unexpected, and thus without shock the ambush or the tempest was incorporated into my plans, or my thoughts. Even in the throes of my worst disaster, I have seen a moment when sheer exhaustion reduced some part of the horror of the experience, and when I made the defeat a thing of my own in being willing to accept it.” 

Of course, this is fiction so Hadrian never said such a thing. But clearly somebody taught Marcus a lesson along those lines, because Meditations is filled with similar passages. Marcus writes about how a fire turns everything that is thrown into it into flame. He says that obstacles are actually fuel. “The impediment to action advances action,” he writes, “what stands in the way becomes the way.”

It’s a beautiful way to approach the world—and ultimately, the only one suited for our unpredictable and stressful times. To avoid difficulty would mean complete retreat from life. It would mean hiding in ignorance. Worse, this would make you dreadfully vulnerable to crisis if it did ever find you. Instead, we must strive—as Hadrian said—to welcome hazard. We can rejoice in the unexpected and even turn failure into something by deciding to own it. We can learn from unpleasantness and even soften our aversions. 

This will not be easy. But that’s fitting, isn’t it? We are not naturally attracted to obstacles…which is precisely why we must work on finding out how to like them. This is the way.

P.S. This was originally sent on March 17, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.