Finding Strength in the Struggle

Finding Strength in the Struggle

You most likely have heard this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Is that really true, though? Does going through something intensely hard make you stronger? Or do you come out on the other side weaker, worn down, more vulnerable? You likely have examples, either personally or in your network, of both outcomes.

The value of hard.

There is something to be said about embracing and overcoming a challenge. Whatever your personal feelings on Alabama Crimson Tide or their coach, Nick Saban, I think he got it exactly right when he said this after winning the 2018 National Championship against Georgia:

“If you can’t overcome hard, you’re never going to have any great victories in your life.”

The research seems to agree with him. Mark Seery from the University of Buffalo, SUNY, has extensively researched stress and how humans cope with it. His research concludes that “a history of some lifetime adversity predicted lower global distress, lower functional impairment, fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms, and higher life satisfaction over time.” His conclusion doesn’t point to one single predictive factor for a positive outcome, but many. Some of those factors include mastering past hurdles, feeling in control, and building social support networks.

And then there’s this idea of post-traumatic growth. Coined in the 1990s by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, post-traumatic growth describes when individuals experience profound transformation as they cope with various types of trauma and challenging life circumstances. Up to 70 percent of trauma survivors report some positive psychological growth, research has found.

My story of overcoming hard.

Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with leukemia. A few months later as I completed treatment, our family hoped it was all behind us. But exactly a year after the original diagnosis, leukemia came roaring back. My only life-saving option was a bone marrow transplant, and my sister was found to be a perfect match for me.

On the evening before I started treatment that would take me an inch above death in order to accept my sister’s cells, I just wanted to run away. There was only a 50% survival rate for bone marrow transplant, not to mention so many things that could go wrong later in life after transplant. But I knew if I didn’t embrace transplant, my life would be over.

By embracing transplant and pressing through the difficult road ahead, several good things happened. A year after transplant, I walked my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Three years after transplant, I saw my oldest son graduate from the Air Force Academy and shake the Vice President’s hand as he crossed the stage. I got to see my youngest son grow into a young man. I have been blessed with two beautiful grandchildren. I would not have been able to experience these wonderful milestones if I had chosen not to embrace transplant. The hard is what makes life great; by overcoming the hard, I have experienced great victories.

The victories of overcoming challenges

Has it been hard? Absolutely yes. And my journey isn’t over. Three years ago, leukemia came back in the form of a solid brain tumor. It took everything I had, nearly two years, to recover from that 9-hour surgery. Over the last 8 years I have spent 160 nights in a hospital, received 40 red blood transfusions, 55 platelet transfusions, 12 radiation treatments, and countless rounds of chemotherapy. I am grateful to be alive.

What has been the result of overcoming this hard journey? First, I am grateful for every day and I don’t take any relationship for granted, especially with my colleagues. Little things that used to bother me are no longer there. I see much more of the positive in everyone instead of focusing on their shortcomings. (My essay, The Art of Being Unoffendable, goes deeper into this idea of shifting focus from the negative to the positive.)

Second, I have deep empathy for anyone going through a struggle. I recognize that their struggle is real and looms large in their life, and they need someone to come alongside them to get through it. Inviting someone for a coffee chat or lunch to hear their story sends a strong message that you are leaning into their struggle. Check in on them regularly so that they see that their struggle is not forgotten.

Finally, overcoming hard has led to a generous spirit of giving and serving—giving of my time and resources to help people get to the other side of the struggle. I recently became aware of a neighbor going through a tough cancer journey and the financial burden they were experiencing. After understanding that they needed an easy solution to feed their family, we were able to deliver several pre-made meals during this difficult time. Because of the financial burden of medical care, they also were not able to replace a refrigerator that was going out. So, we helped deliver a new refrigerator. Removing that stress helped my neighbor focus on getting better.

Finding your strength.

I have faced the deep reality of going through something incredibly difficult…and getting through to the other side. It was awful to go through; it took me to the point of just inches away from death. But now that I’m on this side of it, I can say that I’ve learned so much about myself.

I’ve heard it said that you never know what you are made of until you go through something hard, embrace the challenge, and press through to the other side. It matures you, strengthens your perseverance, and allows you to develop a generous spirit to serve and comfort others who are going through a difficult challenge. You will discover both gratitude and a generous heart of serving others on the other side of the struggle. It’s the hard that makes the overcoming worth it in the end.

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