A difficult life is not less worth living than a gentle one.
Joy is simply easier to carry than sorrow.
And your heart could lift a city from how long you’ve spent
holding what’s been nearly impossible to hold.
I was an angsty college senior the year I read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. I remember deriving great comfort from its well-known first line – “Life is difficult.” Unattached and anxious about not having a post-graduation plan, I was drawn to the opportunity for control Peck’s book seemed to offer. Seeking happiness? Practice self-discipline and develop the habit of delayed gratification. Discontented with your job? Diagnosis the problem then find a solution for it. Eager to have more meaning in your life? Allow the inevitability of your death to teach you about what matters.
I spent years with this Peck-inspired world view as I worked to see disappointments and setbacks as chances for growth and opportunities to learn. I layered on a few other aphorisms along the way such as “this, too, shall pass” and “everything happens for a reason” as I forced myself to focus on silver linings. I clung to the idea that everything would get better if only I got a good night’s sleep and found the blessings or benefits buried in setbacks and challenges.
You’d think that the appearance of Jimmy’s brain tumor would have shaken me out of it, but instead, I doubled down, convinced that if I engaged the best doctors and identified the most promising supportive therapies (reiki, mushroom extract, Norwegian fish oil), Jimmy and I would both emerge on the other side of his year-long treatment with a newfound appreciation for the preciousness of life. Because, of course, my diligence, determination and acceptance of his devastating diagnosis, along with carefully-chosen treatments, would be enough to secure a cancer-free outcome.
Then Jimmy’s cancer recurred, and my illusions about control and philosophical acceptance began to crack. I began to understand that my Peck-inspired approach was all well and good when facing something hard that could be fixed, but when the awful outcome couldn’t be changed, believing in my own power of self-determination only made everything worse.
I didn’t arrive at that understanding easily. Instead, I spent years looking for ways to prevent Jimmy from dying, hoping that the path to a good outcome was there, if only I searched hard enough. This is why I had hope first that we could find a way to cure Jimmy and then later that we could enable him to live indefinitely with the cancer. But it also led to years of guilt after Jimmy died when I held myself accountable for his death, convinced somehow that I should have been able to achieve something even his exemplary medical team couldn’t do.
Looking back, there were plenty of hard things that had happened to my extended family, just like everyone else’s. Divorce, estrangement, financial devastation, mental illness, suicide, addiction. But I’d escaped experiencing any direct trauma myself until I hit my 40s. In the absence of proof to the contrary, I’d concluded that my good fortune was something I’d earned, as well as something I could protect with discipline and hard work. I hadn’t thought about the role luck played or considered the possibility that my luck could run out.
I look back on Peck’s book now and think about how ultimately more meaningful it would have been had he started with “Life is unfair” instead of “Life is difficult.” His message of control did help me see some of the ways I was making my pain worse by procrastinating or acting as if I had no agency over a lousy boss or a dead-end relationship. But I failed to understand that life will deliver some blows we will never see coming, whose damage we can do nothing to prevent and whose shattering outcome we will be unable to change. Or that some of us will receive way more than our share while a lucky few Muggles, as one of my friends used to call them, will escape without anything more than a glancing blow.
Given the option, I would never, ever have picked this road. My son would still be here, and I would still be obnoxiously oblivious to how much other people carry that cannot be changed. But I was never given the chance to choose. Despite the loss and pain peppering this path, it is filled with light and beauty and some of the most amazing humans I have ever met. They have inspired me to go on, taught me to hold the impossible and shown me that joy is still possible, even when life is unfair.