Most people have turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it. — Rainer Maria Rilke

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had the good fortune to host Zoom meetings with several groups of therapists I consult with and teach. I’m moved to tears by the end of almost every one of these meetings.

The willingness of these open-hearted, caring professionals to rise to the occasion to bear and care about the pain and fear their clients carry in the midst of the coronavirus situation cracks my heart wide open. Especially since I also hear the fear and pain these caregivers are facing in their own lives — overwhelm at getting the hang of teletherapy at a moment’s notice, anxiety about what the virus means for a pregnancy, heartbreak about postponing a long-planned wedding, illness in their own families.

The courage to engage in deeply personal conversation about our feelings and responses toward the lockdowns and social distancing necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic brings us close to each other. Opening our hearts to the intensity of the difficulties in the world — in the presence of each other, we are transformed. Our overwhelm melts into sadness, which overflows into compassion for all of us humans who are struggling to make sense of being here.

By walking directly into the center of the difficulty — together with peers — I am indeed moved to tears. And I am grateful.

Hardness Begets Hardness

Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering. — Parker Palmer

Over and over again — in my own life and the lives of my psychotherapy clients — I see that observing and engaging difficulty, rather than avoiding it or fighting it, leads to growth. Yet over and over again, I see that our natural reflex as creatures is to involuntarily resist difficulty with every ounce of strength we possess.

What is it about difficult situations, difficult relationships, difficult feelings that makes us want to eradicate our discomfort and turn toward what is easy?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines difficulty as “hardness to be accomplished; the opposite of ease or facility;” and says that something is difficult when it is “not easy; hard; hard to understand.” That is, difficulty is characterized by hardness.

And what is my automatic reaction when something hard comes flying at me? I harden against it. Out of fear, I reflexively meet hardness with hardness — to protect myself, to deflect the oncoming strike.

Protecting against a hard emotional assault seems to make logical sense. Yet when two hard things collide, such as stone clashing against stone, they violently bounce off of one another. They break or shatter. Since violence and shattering are the results of a naturally hard reaction to difficulty, why wouldn’t I want to turn away, and instead turn toward the easy (yet deadening) path?

The Paradox of Softness

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere. — John O’Donohue

Fortunately, there’s another choice: the paradoxical response of softness.

If I can access that courageous soft place inside me that resides on the other side of fear, the core that can meet the hardness of difficulty with curiosity and openness, then things don’t bounce or break. Instead they shift and deepen.

Instead of clashing against the stone of difficulty, in softness I become a pond. As a pond I can observe the stone of difficulty as it slowly sinks into the depths of my being. I can watch the ripples created by the stone as they permeate my life and transform me.

Of course, some stones are so big that they threaten to empty me with their violent splashing. But that kind of emptying only means that the ripples of transformation are that much larger, irrevocable, and indelible.

Curiosity and openness in the face of difficulty cause the ripples of transformation to manifest in a number of significant ways. Hardened fear, rage, paralysis, and reactivity give way to feelings altogether different:

  • The hard defensiveness of fear melts into the approachable vulnerability of grief and sadness, whose tears wash clean the crevices of my heart to reveal the depths of compassion.
  • The rigidity of rage against the-way-things-are transforms into the fierce motion of outrage, the source of world-changing action.
  • The dull paralysis of numb avoidance gives birth to a lush and passionate awareness of my true strengths, allowing me to enact my compassion and outrage.
  • And the chaos of blind struggle and reactivity breaks open into the receptivity of discernment, which allows me to make good decisions about difficult situations, such as distinguishing between the time for patience and forbearance, and the time for outrageous action.

Courageous Softness Yields Giving Back

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. — Pema Chödrön

Softness in the face of difficulty leads to transformation, and transformation most often hurts. To trust softness as a response to difficulty’s hardness requires strength, courage, and awareness. This trust is much easier to come by when I have support and holding from fearless others who meet me in the difficulty.

Today I stand at a poignant intersection between relief from years of great personal difficulty, and time of tension and difficulty in the world. When I lean into the softness I’ve learned from dealing with my own intense adversity for so many years, I feel what can only be described as a desire to give back. Overcome by a sense of gratitude for all I have received in the journey through my own darkness, I feel compelled to respond to the pain of the world by offering myself.

That pull to give back vividly illustrates what I’ve been trying to say: With much help and support from many good people, I learned what it was like to soften into hard times. And now, rather than feeling drained and used up by years of difficulty, I feel full, strong, grateful, alive. Now I have the capacity to hold others in difficulty. And so they soften.

And so it goes. On and on and on…

Rilke says, “Everything alive trusts in difficulty.” I know I do.

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