How to Cope With The Inevitability of Struggle
Why we need virtuous core values to make the pain life throws at us worth-while.
As humans, we have evolved to magnetize struggle. Thanks to our egos, we hardly ever feel content for long, and the next unmet need always lurks.
So, what do we do?
Fundamentally, I think we have two options. Either we avoid struggle through escapism or channel it into creating a better future — for ourselves, the ones we love or the world — at the expense of comfort in the present moment.
Unaware of this dichotomy, I was blindly avoiding pain for a considerable chunk of my life. Most of my time as a student, I did the bare minimum to pass my courses, kept a narrow set of interests and numbed myself, pulling all-nighters and getting drunk on the weekends.
Was I unhappy? Not at all! It turns out escapism is an excellent strategy for achieving bouts of short-term happiness. I repeat, short term. As time went on, it became clear to me that struggle would always catch up, despite my best efforts to avoid it. So, I considered the alternative option.
But here’s the catch. To effectively sacrifice comfort in the present to create a better future, we must have be clear about what a better future looks like for each and everyone of us. For that we need to be clear with ourselves what our personal values are.
What are personal values? And what are they not?
Personal values are the things that are important to us. Sorry if that’s an obvious answer. But consider this for a moment: humans are masters of self-deception — so, knowing what’s important to you might be less straight-forward than you think.
We love to tell ourselves (and others) that we have virtuous values, when in fact, we don’t. It’s easy to claim to value mental health, for example. Or physical health, or financial independence, or a good relationship with your family. Because who doesn’t value these things, you might think. They are almost stereotypically important.
Matter of fact is, however, that our values are reflected in our behaviours. Not in our words. So, unless you’re willing to make sacrifices for something, it’s not truly important or of value to you. (At most, it’s of very little value).
With a family history of mental health issues, I knew I was predisposed to depression. I knew of the need to be vigilant about the things that could compromise my mental well-being. I was well-read about the various risks I was subject to and the methods to mitigate them. But, alas, that hardly ever reflected in my behaviour.
Why? Well, the unfiltered truth is quite simply this: I valued partying, sleepless nights and smoking pot more than practices that would improve my mental health — or at least not compromise it. Through my hedonistic habits and routines, I created a comfort zone that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice. So, rather than being an actual value, mental well-being was something I wanted to value.
How changing your personal values can protect you
I’m not the only one creating dissonance between my actual and desired values. We do it all the time, individually and collectively. Think of our continuing commitments and subsequent failures to take decisive action against climate change.
This is one of many examples, but it illustrates an essential point. If our values are misaligned with what we believe to be righteous, we risk total ruin — as a species and individuals.
When self-inflicted disaster is imminent, changing our values becomes the only option for survival. Yet, it’s equally true that we can take preventive action and not let it come to this point. With a sense of direction and discipline, we can overcome ourselves and create the values we want to have in the absence of urgency as well.
Imagine and self-direct yourself towards the values you want
First, and most important, of all, we have to accept that we won’t escape our pain. It’s a blow that evolution dealt us, but along with it, we received two uniquely human abilities that allow us to make our suffering worthwhile: Imagination and self-direction.
Using our imagination, we can picture how our lives would be better if we had the values we desire and acted more virtuously. Then we can set goals that are in line with this value and use our ability to self-direct our behaviour to achieve these goals.
We will be a step closer to being the version of ourselves we imagined with each goal we achieve. Of course, that will take a fair amount of discipline, and there will be setbacks. But if we push ourselves for long enough, the benefits of our practice will begin to materialize. And if these benefits significantly improve lives, then deciding to sacrifice in line with our values continuously will become easier and easier.
What kind of life do you want to live?
Admittedly, I never intended this piece of advice to be a life-hack to make life easier. In my experience, the process of creating virtuous values necessitates difficulty and efforts to circumvent it are at best ineffective.
However, I invite you to embrace this, for life will inevitably throw challenges at you whether you’re trying to avoid them or not. And the payoff will be better than satisfying the most intense escapist desires.
Fortunately, I never developed a severe mental health issue, despite my predisposition and irresponsible lifestyle choices. At some point, about two years ago, I challenged myself to meditate daily for at least 20 minutes for a whole month. There were days where it came relatively easy. On other days I dreaded it.
Nevertheless, after one month I had my first taste of how being the version of myself that genuinely values good mental health feels. I felt great. From that point onwards, creating habits and routines that challenge me to feel better mentally became almost second nature. Likewise, saying no to hedonistic temptations that could compromise my mental well-being became easier.
What kind of values do you want to create? What kind of life do you want to live? It all begins with a wish for betterment and an initial burst of discipline.