Overcoming Obstacles Enables Happiness

“I used to resent obstacles along the path…then I realized, life is the obstacles.”

Jana Levin in Tribe of Mentors

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could snap your fingers and find every impediment to happiness and success suddenly removed? Now you would finally have all the time, focus, and energy you need to build that perfect reality and live that dream life you always envisioned. No more 9-5 job taking up time you could be working on your startup company. No more kid’s soccer practice in the evenings eating into training time to prepare for that race you’ve wanted to do. No more early alarms waking you up to beat the morning rush-hour, more time instead to sleep in and feel well rested for your busy day of doing whatever the hell you want.

Sounds dreamy doesn’t it?

In addition to being complete and utter fantasy, it also might prove to be far less rewarding than you might think. Recall the notion that the destination is the journey. There is no ultimate destination in life other than the one we are all doomed to reach sooner or later which is death. There is no destination of happiness where you suddenly reach it and then just simply exist in joy and elation. Life is the journey. Happiness is the journey of becoming happier not just suddenly being happy, the end.

Our opening quote comes from Dr. Jana Levin of Barnard College at Columbia University. Dr. Levin is the Tow Professor of Physics and Astronomy, has done groundbreaking research on gravity and black holes, has published several books, and a philanthropist along with what I must assume are many other accomplishments. Dr. Levin, in her pursuits, used to view obstacles as impediments to her quest for growth and accomplishment, just like you and I have likely thought. Eventually she came to the realization that there is no such thing as a life without some type of obstacles. That type of existence is unfeasible and quite frankly, undesirable. “Life is the obstacles,” she writes. Without some form of struggle or obstacle, can we ever truly realize success, accomplishment, or happiness. Things as we understand them can only exist if there is an equal opposite. Without struggle there is no success. Without failure there is no accomplishment. And without sorrow there is no happiness.

“Suffering presents obstacles, but the way to happiness or salvation is not in eliminating the obstacle that is our suffering but rather through it in embracing a positive attitude to our suffering.”

Matt Kenreich

This is not a new way of thinking but it is a concept that is often forgotten or ignored in a world where we all perceive the perfect and easy lives of others via social media, or expect to become overnight successes with no issues along the way. Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic Roman Emperor and philosopher wrote in his journal that: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Marcus was an man who found his empire in a constant state of warfare, was husband to an unfaithful wife, father to a disaster of a human being, and constantly at threat of being deposed by his enemies and false friends alike. He never once had the audacity to wish for these things to disappear but rather prayed and meditated to find the strength within himself to deal with such struggles. As a Stoic he would have known that he cannot control those around him but he could control his thoughts and actions, and thus he embraced the struggle.

Eastern philosophy even recognizes the obstacles of life that are essential to our personal growth, understanding, and happiness. The first of the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Suffering presents obstacles, but the way to happiness or salvation is not in eliminating the obstacle that is our suffering but rather through it in embracing a positive attitude to our suffering.

Viktor Frankl, the famed Psychologist who survived the Holocaust as a prisoner in the Concentration Camps knew that his path to finding meaning and purpose was through the obstacle of his suffering. He credited his attitude towards his suffering, towards that obstacle to his very existence, and his ability to find meaning through it as the only reason that he was able to survive, noting the same trait in other survivors of the world’s greatest atrocity.

Alan Watts, who is heavily responsible for the popularity of Eastern Religion in Western Culture understood the importance of obstacles and struggles in our realization of happiness. Watts believed that the meaning of happiness was found in acceptance of Man’s unity with ALL of nature and all of the universe. His understanding of happiness could not be attained without man first struggling to separate himself from nature, something Man views as an obstacle to becoming his greatest self, only to finally realize the futility of this struggle and accept the union afterall. Without that struggle, that obstacle to understanding and acceptance, there is no happiness. Those who do not first struggle to remove the perceived obstacle to happiness before realizing it is a futile struggle do not know happiness because they have never had the presence of consciousness to struggle at all. Look at obstacles as welcome parts of the process of understanding and happiness.

Bringing it all back down to earth here, understand that what you perceive as obstacles are actually a defining part of your existence. Without struggle there is no triumph. Obstacles are an integral part of our existence and they aren’t going anywhere so rather than wish them gone, rise to the occasion, or as Bruce Lee said: “do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

The obstacles you face and overcome will be defining attributes of your character. We don’t all face the same obstacles but we all face them nonetheless. I always say that I would never trade my problems with anyone else’s. That isn’t just because I recognize that I am privileged and blessed but because I know what obstacles I face and I know that I have what it takes to face them. Facing your obstacles now gives you the skill and confidence to deal with future obstacles or challenges. Think about what you are most proud of in your life. It probably has something to do with overcoming an obstacle. Maybe it was being a good parent when the initial prospect of racing a child terrified you, that is a major obstacle. Maybe it was finding love despite repeated heartbreaks and mishaps, or maybe it was getting out of a bad relationship – something that required a major act of courage, both of these are major obstacles. Don’t back down from your obstacles, the way you face them and deal with them is your path to happiness and salvation.

I want to close with a quote from the famous Greek Philosopher, Socrates. “It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” Building upon that I will finish with my own version that is more broadly applicable in scope:

“It is a shame for a person to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which their spirit is capable.”

Matt Kenreich

Without obstacles, you will never understand of what your spirit is capable.

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