Those are the opening words of M. Scott Peck’s classic self-help book, The Road Less Traveled. I’d actually not heard of the book until self-help expert Christine Whelan mentioned it as one of the “self-help books that don’t suck” (per the column I wrote about the topic earlier this year; please forgive the bad formatting. All my BNET columns are now migrating over to CBS Moneywatch). As with the majority of decent self-help books, The Road Less Traveled basically argues that we are in charge of shaping our lives, a topic Peck writes about from the perspective of a psychiatrist.
As far as opening lines go, “life is difficult” is a bit of a downer. But it’s an effective one, because it’s a liberating thought. Many of the things we complain about stem from a different paradigm — namely, that life should be easy. It’s certainly tempting to think life should be easy. After all, we live in an incredibly rich society. We get to ask what we’d like to do with our lives, rather than existing as, say, serfs or slaves tied to the land. The vast majority of us survive to adulthood, often in the kind of good health that means we don’t actually have to think about our health. Because we (loosely defined as “anyone reading this via a high-speed internet connection”) live our lives with such a blessed backdrop, any woe looms large.
One might think that “life is difficult” invites a sort of pessimism, but the opposite is the case. If you assume life will be difficult, then you can celebrate everything that isn’t. You can address the things that are difficult more rationally and dispassionately, rather than as some completely unfair and unmerited strike from the universe. Of course it’s unfair and unmerited. But life is difficult.
I was thinking of all this earlier today in a context that probably sounds quite trivial. I was driving to a coffee shop to meet some people. It was one of my first outings with Ruth. I am still relatively new to driving, and newborn crying is almost impossible to ignore as the mom of said newborn. When she started fussing soon after I dropped Jasper off at school, my nerves were on edge. I pulled over and put the pacifier in her mouth. As I was doing so, though, I realized that my nervousness was coming from an expectation that “life should be easy” — namely, I thought she shouldn’t cry. If I expected that driving 15 minutes with a newborn in the car can mean 15 minutes of crying (“life is difficult”), I’d be better prepared for it, and possibly more relaxed about it. With this mindset, the minute of crying was expected, and then she settled down, producing 14 minutes of unexpected happiness.
When might it be helpful in your life to have the mindset that “life is difficult”?