The bittersweet taste of adversity
Evidence of California's severe drought was everywhere during my recent trip to Napa Valley. It was mentioned on local television, on bus stop advertisements, and even on signs in the middle of a public park. The commitment to conserving water was clear and strong.
Imagine my surprise when a sommelier at a wine-tasting event told us:
"California wines are great this year—all because of the drought."
He went on to explain how the lack of water puts grapes under stress, and they fight their way to survival by digging their roots deeper into the soil in search of nutrients. The deeper they go, the richer the nutrients they find. So, according to him, wineries are producing less amounts of wine of better quality.
This shocked me. At first I kept thinking of the poor little grapes fighting to get the food they need to survive ... but as time went on, I knew the significance of this ran deeper. I asked myself:
"Are we anything like these California grapes?"
For years and years, we've been trained to think stress is a terrible thing. Being told it can actually be a good thing is a hard pill to swallow. Especially because it leads to this:
If stress can yield better results, then are struggle and pain good, too?
Telling the full story
We've all heard about the hero's journey, and we've watched it in countless movies: our protagonist is called to some adventure, suffers a crisis and goes through a stage of growth and learning, and finally makes the big win!
But you want to know the truth?
It's a story arc we've long accepted to watch, but it's not one we want to live. We want the adventure and the victory but not the suffering in the middle.
When our loved ones are down, we feel terrible and want nothing more than for them to get through the rough patch as quickly as possible. And, most of all, when we're the ones feeling down, we reject our suffering like the plague. Our suffering feels unbearable and unfair.
A big part of rejecting our struggles is to deny them. We try to lock them up and throw away the key, burying them in our past, which doesn't help.
Especially when you begin to appreciate the beauty in our struggles.
Yes, I said it.
Our struggles are beautiful—they're what lead us to the third part of the hero's journey: the big win. And that "big win" may be one of two things:
- An outcome you've been hoping for, like being accepted to a great school, getting a promotion or landing a big client, or...
- Coming full circle on a key learning, like realizing the value in not getting what you wanted or exploring an alternate path.
So instead of denying your moments of struggle, show them.
Baring it all
There's a Japanese philosophy that perfectly illustrates the beauty of feeling broken. In Japanese, the term kintsugi means "golden joinery", but Wikipedia explains further:
"Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum ... As a philosophy it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise."
In essence, when pottery breaks, you don't throw it away. You put it back together with gold lacquer. You don't deny the breakage, the history or the trajectory of the piece— you highlight it.
Despite living a privileged and tragedy-free life, I've felt broken many times. Sometimes, I feel like that's why I write and speak and take photos and podcast and do whatever else strikes my fancy. Those are all gold lacquers that celebrate the breakage as much as hold me together.
Like the California grapes, the heroes on their journeys, and the broken pottery in Japan, adversity is something we can learn to embrace.
Don't define yourself as broken. Don't disguise your struggles. Show them off, for they have made you whole.