Difficult people teach us how to be better humans

Published 5:18 pm Thursday, January 25, 2024

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“Hard times breed better people.” That’s an adaptation of a line from the song ‘Kingdom’ by Downstait. It’s a heavy song, with a rousing chorus that lifts your spirits and makes you feel like you can take on the world. You feel the pulsing rhythm, hear the melody take root in your soul, and join a chorus of resistance that says to anything that comes against you, “You tried to tell me what to do. I saw the door and kicked it down. I stepped right over and right through. And you can never stop me now!”
Music has a way of giving us what we need. When we’re in a pit of despair, listening to the despairing cries of another helps us feel like we’re not so alone. Sometimes, the joyful noise of a pop anthem lifts us from that despair and gets us moving with laughter and hope. I’m sure you’ve got your own secret stash of tunes you blast when you need a mood shift, but if you don’t, I’ll gladly give you a recommendation list. You might have to wade through a lot of Norwegian Black Metal, though, before you find something you like.
The song above is one I turn to when I feel like I’m living in my own hard times, when I feel like the struggle is winning and I don’t have much gas left in the tank. You know what it feels like to wake up exhausted, when it feels like a long day already but you’ve just gotten out of bed. You know what it’s like to wrestle with constant pain and feel like the pain is almost forcing you to tap out.
But, it doesn’t win as long as we’ve got breath in our lungs and a steady pulse. It doesn’t win when you decide to roll out of bed, put on a brave face, and step into the sunshine. It doesn’t win when we decide to learn from it, rather than rejecting it and pretending everything is a-okay. Sometimes, the hard times can be a teacher, as those hard times create opportunities for us to realize that we aren’t as weak as we thought we were.
I’m reminded of a mentor of mine named Tom, a Buddhist chaplain who always seemed to have the right wisdom at the right moment. During one-on-one supervision, I was complaining about a fellow chaplain’s persistent rudeness. Tom responded with something I’ll never forget: ‘Maybe she’s your Buddha.’ His point was that sometimes, the most difficult people in our lives can end up teaching us how to be better human beings. I think that applies to the whole of life. Our struggles can teach us about what endurance looks like in the face of pain and suffering. Our struggles can help us understand and relate to the struggles of others, which brings empathy, companionship, and true unity.
I’ve taken Tom’s wisdom and applied it to my own tradition. When I remember to think beyond my suffering, I’ll ask, “What is my learning in this?” To be clear, I don’t believe God brings suffering into our lives as a test to induce learning and growth. Sometimes life is just hard, too hard, and it doesn’t have anything to do with God’s plans. Even still, such pointless struggles, the hard times that seem to make no sense, can produce learning and growth, but only if we first recognize that we are strong enough to endure whatever comes our way. We conquer the hard times not by rejecting them, but by embracing them and moving through them.
You are not alone in your struggle. Your hard times will not crush you. You’re alive, and in the words of my good friend Superman, “You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”
Chris Adams is the Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.