Without mountains, we might find ourselves relieved that we can avoid the pain of ascent, but we will forever miss the thrill of the summit. And in such a terribly scandalous trade-off, it is the absence of pain that becomes the thief of our life.  —Craig D. Lounsbrough

M emory is such a strange thing. Clear in so many ways and foggy in others. Forgetting is often a gift as it assists us in moving on. Yet, sometimes it makes us lose sight of the lessons, moments, and delights that presented themselves to our previous selves. Even worse, memory frequently twists itself in and around our self-narrative and gets rewritten to a better, or worse, storyline.

I discovered memory’s twisting effects many years ago when I decided to visit a few houses in which I had lived when growing up. In each case, these houses in which I had slept hundreds of nights and lived within across so many days never quite looked like I remembered. To feel deceived by what appeared to be such clear memories was itself a striking memory. The reality I found revealed my memory’s betrayal and it has been suspect since.

Flipping through a personal journal recently reminded me of memory’s treacherously protective inclinations as an entry triggered a surrealistic sense of déjà vu. Having just finished a new entry expressing the frustrations of a particular week, I randomly opened the journal to a page near the beginning and was immediately struck by the similarity of the entry to the one I had just written. Though the specific details of the entries were different, the lament was the same. The format went something like this:

  1. Lament over a specific challenge.
  2. My struggle with the external realities as well as my own frame of mind.
  3. The fatigue and disappointment I felt in the moment.

A few days later the clouds seemed to dissipate and the sunshine returned as I worked past the struggle. Reading more entries, I noticed a similar pattern. The imposing mountain. The difficult ascent. The joyful pinnacle. The inevitable descent. The next mountain. Begin again.

And on it goes. Life as a series of challenges; the mountains that appear requiring us to find a way up or around. Conquering them, we move on to the next one each time asking “why me?” Each time being surprised that we have to figure it out again. Oh difficult life! Oh treacherous memory!

When did we begin expecting it to be easy? The thing about climbing mountains is that you don’t get better at it by not climbing them. Life is an ongoing range of peaks of various sizes. Don’t like the mountain metaphor? How about sailing? Smooth seas don’t make a skilled sailor. A lack of trauma doesn’t make a good emergency room physician. And on and on. The trials test us, strengthen us, and cause us to become more. They force us to improve. They also bring us closer to joy.

Looking through years of journals, the same message repeated. The challenges came, and life went on. The challenges weren’t the problem. My attitude toward my problems was the recurring challenge. The mistake was thinking that a new problem wouldn’t replace the one just solved. This isn’t pessimism. Reading those journal entries reminded me that we are made for this life. Our mind, body, and spirit must push against the challenges of life or they atrophy. Our skills must be used or they don’t improve. We can’t thrive without the struggle.

Our memory does what it is supposed to do by reminding us of the biggest pitfalls while allowing us to forget the endless collection of struggles that, if continually summed, might break us. Pure pleasantry won’t help us survive in what can be a hostile world. Our challenges make us stronger and thereby enable us to thrive amidst them. Take a moment to think about that.

Having conquered so many challenges as a species, we have become subject to a sense of evolutionary entitlement – a feeling that we shouldn’t be subject to ongoing problems or that we should be able to solve them all quickly and easily as a matter of course. We resist resistance. We defy obstacles. We kick. We wail. We fight. We gnash our teeth and ask “why?” People do dumb things and we are surprised. The weather changes and we shake our heads as it disrupts our plans or our life. Something happens and we figure that we’ve got to fix whatever is broken. Yet, after each repair, something else breaks. Our need to prevent it, control it, or make someone else pay for it becomes central to our sense of self.

The fog of memory returns, helping us forget tragedy. Helping assuage the pain of disappointment. Softening the sharp edges of a previous reality and the fear of one yet to be. Looking back, what would you tell yourself? You will survive. You will go on. You will find a way. These struggles will take you somewhere new. The challenges are part of the journey. Your journey. Stop fighting to control them. Stop living to avoid them. Bend with the wind. Flex with the struggle. Don’t fight the riptide, go with it until it takes you to smoother water. Stop throwing yourself against the rocks seeking the outcome you want and take a moment to look for the path opening for you.

Don’t believe me? Spend the next 12 months journaling and take a look at the entries after a year. Mountain. Ascent. Pinnacle. Descent. Begin again. Perfection? It is a mirage. Control? It is an imposter. You control the thoughts in your mind, your actions, and the person you choose to be. This is going to hurt but you will find a way. This is going to be difficult but you are up to the challenge. To struggle is to grow. To grow is to thrive. To thrive brings joy.

But you already knew that, didn’t you?