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Life Is Difficult



Individuality, worth and dignity

are…not given to us by nature,

but assigned to us as a task.

- Walter Kaufmann



Imagine being a hiker working your way up a switchback trail under low-hanging clouds that obscure the mountain above. When you look up you can see only as far as the next bend in the path. When you look down, however, you can see all the marvelous landscape through which you’ve traveled laid out below you. When you reach the section of trail where it doubles back on itself, there is a nice flat spot for resting and enjoying the view. As you rest, the cloud cover lifts very slightly and the next small segment of trail is revealed, beckoning upward. This is what it means to be human. This is our existential truth. We are each alone on our own trail, working our way up a mountain whose height and degree of difficulty we have no way of knowing because we cannot see it through the fog. We can dream about what it’s like above and we can hope that we will be able to summit and we might catch glimpses of the mountain through the clouds, but we cannot know what’s ahead. We are forced to acknowledge that there is no foreseeable future.

We are soothed by the sounds of others working their way up their trails, and, if we’re lucky, our paths will overlap somewhat with theirs. We toil along, we stop at the rest sites and we enjoy our accomplishments. But each time we stop, we face a profound choice – we can proceed up, we can stop and choose to go no further, or we can retreat to a lower place and settle in. All are decent choices, and all are ours alone to make. No matter what we decide, however, we will always know that our mountain is there, daring us to climb – alone up into the clouds. This is why life is difficult.

But often the adults in our early lives fail to pass on to us this essential existential truth. They tell us instead that life is easy.

There are reasons adults lie about how difficult life is. Sometimes it’s a benign wish on the adults’ part to boost our self-confidence. Sometimes it’s because our adults have forgotten just how hard growing up can be. Sometimes it’s empathic failure on the part of our adults in that they don’t realize how our generation had a more difficult time with some of the things their generation did easily. Sometimes it just reflects mean-spirited attempts by the adults in our lives to make us feel badly about ourselves. Whatever the reason behind the lack of candor, being misled about the difficulty of life sets us up to feel like fools when we struggle.

Sadly, in addition to poor parents, many aspects of society overtly engender in us a false belief that life is easy. All those little aphorisms that come our way such as “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff”, “just do it”, and “making the big score”, all the books that promise seven easy steps to being a winner and all the stories of someone’s instant success are just a few of the ways our cultures suggest that life isn’t supposed to be difficult.

No matter what the cause, the curse is the same. If our world lies to us about the fact that life is difficult, we will be sent out into the world unprepared to enact the appropriate level of what Sartre called the “spirit of seriousness.”

To return to our metaphor, children play around at the foot of the mountain because it’s fun and easy and safe. That’s what they are supposed to do. Adults tackle the mountain because it’s fun and scary and dangerous. That’s what they are supposed to do. The trick is to make the transition from childhood play in the meadows below to adult play on the mountainside above.

Embracing the truth

This little article is intended to beguile you into embracing the truth that life is not easy. There are potent arguments to support this position. In fact, if you throw a dart at any piece of existential writing, it will land on some aspect of the difficulty of being human. Existential writers, those great life tutors, provide the best antidote to the false promise that we are each one lucky break away from a life of ease. They make the following arguments: life is difficult, difficult does not equal impossible, we are each more than capable of facing the difficulty, acknowledging the degree of difficulty has profound positive effects, and we should be encouraged by wise folks in our lives to do so. In fact, these points are the hallmark of existentialism – that we humans are fully capable of facing the difficulty of life and are much healthier psychologically when we do. In addition, existentialists and feminists agree that cultural interference is what alienates us from our innate ability to bravely face the givens of existence.

Yes, life is difficult

One of the greatest demands that existentialism makes of us is that we welcome uncompromising truths. It isn’t enough to accept that life is a struggle, we have to sincerely believe that challenges hone us in precious ways.

It is understandable that few of us really want to hear this particular truth – that life is difficult. Most of us have a hidden conviction that there is a key that can unlock for us a life of ease. If I could just __________ (fill the blank with: buy a house, finish the book, get into that school, scale back my life, find my mate, let go of the ego, get enough money, stop drinking, find enlightenment, retire, get in shape, etc.), then I’d be set. It’s not to say that achieving life’s milestones or improving psychological competence won’t bring significant satisfaction into our lives, it’s just that no accomplishment is the key to ease because there is no ease. There is only striving.

Humans exist always in an uncomfortable state of either striving to attain or striving to maintain. Our task as humans is to put in place for ourselves the social, recreational, spiritual, professional, political, physical, artistic and economic dimensions of our life. Once any part of any one of these pieces is in place, we need to then maintain it, for everything we can attain can be lost. We struggle to get a promotion, for instance, and then we struggle to do the new job well, positioning ourselves for the next promotion. We work out to get in shape and then work out to stay in shape. We toil all spring weeding our garden, only to have the summer rains start the weeds growing again. What a difficult task to build and maintain many significant existential structures. Luckily, humans relish challenges. Two fabulous nonfiction books that explore the human capacity for striving are The Courage to Create by Rollo May, and The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.

Life is also difficult existentially because the human experience on earth unfolds for each of us only once, which means that everything is constantly new for every single one of us. Nothing will have timeless rightness. Our individual essence comes into existence as we learn, and we learn as we go. Inherent in this design is the reality that, because our learning is the result of our living, our knowledge comes after we need it. About the time we’re done with the difficult task of designing our lives, ironically, we are starting to have some idea of how to go about it. Think how much easier it would be to climb that mountain the second time around! We would know how to train, what supplies to take, what routes to avoid, which guides to hire and so on.

The reality is that life is one big dress rehearsal, and we can’t be sure there will ever be a performance. This unpleasant truth fuels the recurring fantasy most of us have about going back “knowing what I know now” to redo high school, college, parenting, a failed relationship, career decisions, building a house, etc. But living involves facing the difficult truths of existence as we attempt our real-time, one-and-only chance to build a life of value for ourselves.

As existentialist Marjorie Grene captured it “…he must therefore devote himself to the quest of his own nature as of something infinitely important but strange, puzzling and full of mystery.” And isn’t that a good thing, for wouldn’t we want our lives to be at least as challenging as the Sunday crossword puzzle?

Acknowledging the truth is powerful

Nietzsche and his ilk agree that those who would be adults understand that, no matter how seductive ease is, pretending life is easy will not serve us well. But why not? When we can entertain the idea that life is difficult and that we are designed to handle that truth, then we are confronted with the question: So what? Is it good to recognize the fact that life is difficult? Wouldn’t it be better to just put our heads down, wrap ourselves in the consoling delusion that we can get to a place where “the livin’ is easy,” get on with life, and find happiness where we can?

Acknowledging the degree of difficulty we each face every day is a powerful way to live for many reasons. A few of these reasons are:

1) Membership in the human race

When we realize how hard life is, we can feel a profound sense that we are engaged in the same struggle that all humans have faced for perhaps the past 3 million years. From Lucy to Nefertiti to Lincoln to Helen Keller to Jimmy Carter to the next Nobel Prize winner to you. We are all Gyna sapiens and Homo sapiens trying to make our way in an extraordinarily challenging world. Thus, to the extent we willingly design our personal philosophy, we get to stand shoulder to shoulder with those great existential thinkers. It is heady company, indeed, to align with people like Nietzsche who wrote comments such as: "A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is will to power." There is something hugely comforting in joining that community.

2) Peace with our instincts

To the extent that we have had personal experience with struggle, we generate an uneasy hypothesis that life may be more difficult than we were led to believe. We may try to disprove this hypothesis by pretending that the incoming data of our days are not supporting it, but even if our life appears to be floating along nicely, there is plenty of evidence around us that others are suffering. We are mortal, fallible, separate, unique, meaning-seeking creatures who can tell time. At our deepest core and from a very early age we know these truths to be both self-evident and challenging, and there is comfort in naming and accepting them. We feel congruent with our wiser inner self when we can do so. In this state, we are more fully connected with ourselves and there is great comfort in that joining as well.

3) A sense of pride

When a task is difficult and we are successful to any extent, we have the right to feel good about ourselves. When that task is as awesome as the struggle to design our unique essence, our successes can truly support a great sense of pride. A justified sense of pride reassures us of our potency and will encourage us to further engage our efforts – our will to power as Nietzsche called it. Without the understanding of existentialism (that we humans are fully capable of facing the difficulty of life, are much healthier psychologically when we do so and that it is cultural interference that alienates us from our innate ability to face the dreadful givens of life) we misunderstand our difficulties. An existentially naïve life can feel like one giant, junior high school nightmare in which everyone knows what to do but us. With the understanding of existentialism, however, we know that we struggle not because we are stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy, but because life is difficult. With that attitude, we are able to consistently and appropriately admire our efforts to tackle life.

4) A sense of compassion

On the other hand, if we are not successful in a life endeavor, acknowledging the degree of difficulty can also help us understand why we have failed. It is far better to attribute our failures to the fact that life is difficult rather than to a deficit in our character, for if we believe that we are defective, there is little incentive to exert. If, however, we believe the task is hard, we can try again because we have an understanding of the origin of our struggles, compassion for the inevitability of our failures and hope for our future success.

5) What’s the alternative?

Finally, unless we keep alert to the need to understand that life is difficult and why life is difficult, we risk being seduced into the futile pursuit of ease. When you organize around ease, your energy will be spent looking for shortcuts, instant gratification and freebies. But, as they say, when something looks too good to be true, it usually is, so most of those "easy" solutions turn out to be trails leading nowhere that drain us of our most precious resource – time. When we’re spent because of unsuccessful attempts to cut corners, we are susceptible to shaming words about ourselves that can drive us even further into a panicked need to get ahead quickly. In other words, if we spend our time looking for shortcuts, we don’t spend our time looking for ourselves. So, the alternative to accepting that life is difficult is the ineffective strategy of trying to find the easy life. In the end, we get no life.

Life is difficult. Saying that out loud isn’t whining, it is an existential rallying call. It is also the antidote to the birth curse caused by the lie that life is supposed to be easy (and the corollaries that we’ve had it easy, we should be eternally grateful and that we should be sailing happily along through an effortless life). When existential philosophy rings true for us we don’t exhaust ourselves trying to ignore the givens in pursuit of short-cuts and hand-outs. We want to know the truth about how tough it all is because we know we can handle the truth. We can make what Heidegger called the “resolute decision” to not be intimidated but to be exhilarated by the degree of difficulty of the mountain we are choosing to climb.

Walk softly and carry a big stick

Experienced mountain climbers know that a key to success is an attitude of respect for the mountain. No one ascends very high if they treat the journey like a lark. When you take mountaineering seriously, one of the things you do is put thought into selecting a reliable climbing partner. The traits one looks for in a sidekick are loyalty, inspiration and support. If we incarnate the existential concept of dread, we get all three of these qualities. Dread is, however, someone few of us are eager to pal around with. Nevertheless, let me see if I can make a case for how we can use a comfort with dread to ease our ascent.

Existentially speaking, dread is the very appropriate human response to both the vastness of life and the terrifying existential limitations to life. For even if we lived forever, we lack the ability to learn enough to master the givens of existence. Prevailing over the existential challenges will always exceed our capabilities. Facing the challenges, however, does not.

Dread evokes a range of feelings in us – terror, respect, curiosity, overwhelm, awe, anxiety, etc. – but it is not itself a feeling. It is a state of understanding that life is difficult and why life is difficult. It is important to understand that dread is not a word of victimhood or resignation but a degree-of-difficulty word. It means: I’m conscious of the fact that I’m facing this daunting thing (life) and I can probably do it, but it’s going to be hard and scary and lonely. And I will fail many times along the way, but I’ll likely survive the failures. And if I reach the top - WOW.

The state of dread, an attitude of acceptance of the difficulty of existence, creates a readiness to proceed that, with practice, compels one forward into one’s life. Dread is compelling in two ways. First, dread motivates us because the unpleasant feelings that accompany it (fear, insecurity, overwhelm) push us to move off our stasis. Think back to your first jump off the high diving board. For me, it became so unpleasant to stand there dreading the deed minute after minute that it simply became less dreadful to jump than to stand there in the agony of anticipation. Second, dread motivates us because the pleasant feelings that dread evokes (eagerness, wonder, respect) pull us forward into the next step of experiencing. I could imagine the joy and pride of having flung myself off that board, into the water and into that fabulous club of Kids Who Had Jumped. That is to say, dreadfully difficult things are, by their very nature, glorious to have accomplished.

It is important to note that the opposite of dread is not innocence or peace or calm. The opposite of dread is inauthenticity. Since authenticity requires fully embracing the task of consistently being our unique selves, it puts us in an intimate relationship with the dreadful, limiting givens of existence. In order to eliminate dread, we would have to retreat from the challenges presented by both the limitations of the givens and the vastness of life. When we do this we risk retreating from engaging in thoughts, feelings and behaviors that will define us as genuine and original. We would have little dread but also little authenticity.

You are a human being. There are natural laws that circumscribe your humanity. The greater your understanding of these limitations, the greater your potential humanity. Dread is the word that describes the state of acceptance of this truth. The word dread once meant a state of reverence involving high levels of both terror and awe. It has come to be stripped of any positive connotation and now includes only negative feelings such as horror, alarm, dismay and annoyance. We need to once again relish the archaic flavor of this word and believe that, not only do we have the stomach to tolerate the range of feelings this word rouses, but also we will be much better off if we do so. Sartre had a more pithy way of putting it: Human life begins on the far side of despair.

If we can create détente with dread, we can more easily cut through the lies of our childhood, replace them with our personal version of the existential truths and free ourselves to resume our climb. In other words, a little dread is a good thing. It is loyal, inspiring and helpful, and makes a great sidekick.