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Growing Up

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Struggle is the Thing

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

A dear friend of mine just wrote a Facebook confessional in which he admitted to twice contemplating suicide. The latter occasion coincided with the day after Trump won the presidential election. My friend's beautifully written explanation of his despair and hopelessness resonated with me because I care about him, and because I have hidden in a similar dark place.

I was driven to question life's merit by physical and mental illness. Nothing so noble as a fear for the country or the human race (as my friend expressed) but an utter shock and grief at my own personal weakness drove me to wonder why I should continue to struggle.

It's taken me forty - five years to understand this: the struggle is the thing.  We're led to believe that that happiness and ease are the end-goals. Our national outlook and our economy are based on the hope that something we buy, achieve, earn, drive or eat can make us happy, can make life worthwhile.  When these tactics fail, we try others, waste decades avoiding the struggle, pretending it isn't there, hoping it will go away.

But for those who are either forced into struggle or who choose it, the struggle is the thing. Ta-Nahisi Coates expresses this idea beautifully in  Between the World and Me: "So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope."

Verbs over nouns, struggle over hope. That doesn't sound easy and it doesn't sound fun. But Coates named his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, so despite the struggle of growing up as black male in America, he found the splendor in the struggle. No less of a pop culture authority than Iggy Azalea lines up with Coates on this issue: in the song "Work" she sings"Hustle and the struggle is the only thing I'm trusting."

The hardest aspect to swallow - akin to swallowing broken glass in your supermarket hamburger - is that we are not promised results. The struggle is worthwhile for it's own sake. There may be nothing in it for us or for our generation, and we're told not even to hope for the next. The struggle is real, and valuable, and enough.

A prematurely wise and sensitive genius, David Foster Wallace, agreed:
"No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home" (Consider the Lobster and Other Essays).

But I don't agree that the struggle is horrific or that the journey is either endless or impossible. Neither does my friend, which is why both he and I are still around. Our shared humanity and communal struggle provide rare moments of beautiful unity, recognition of our mutual longings. We know that who we become through struggle is who we are meant to be.

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