Every person, when faced with a tragedy, has the opportunity to make a choice. They can either see their new hardship as a barrier which is standing in their way and doing everything it can to prevent them from realizing their life’s mission, or they can view their adversity as a tool that they can use to propel themselves toward not only realizing their mission, but accomplishing even more than they ever believed they could.
I find the best way to conceptualize this choice, and its result is to picture one’s self in a gym. Imagine that you are standing in the middle of the gym floor, innocently contemplating and preparing for the day’s workout, when a giant bodybuilder approaches you from behind, and places a barbell on your shoulders. You instinctively take hold of the bar and feel its weight. It’s a heavy bar, but not overwhelming. The bodybuilder walks away, and leaves you to make your decision.
Your first option is to do nothing, and simply hold the bar on your shoulders. You curse the barbell’s existence, and the bodybuilder for placing it on you. This isn’t what you had intended for the day, and you can’t imagine how you can possibly do your original workout with this barbell resting across your shoulders. At first, this feels like the only option, but pretty soon the weight that didn’t seem so bad initially, begins to overwhelm you. Your shoulders begin to tire, but you let them sag, and that seems to ease the discomfort so that you can hold the bar longer. But eventually your back begins to tire, and no amount of sagging will relieve the pain. So, you take a knee. And then another one. Yet still your back burns, until finally it gives out, and you fall forward. But the weight does not magically become lighter just because you are tired. And now, it is seated atop your back, pinning you to the ground, unable to move. You used all of your energy simply to resist the weight for as long as you could, but like all sources of energy, it was finite. And now you have no hope of finishing your original workout depleted of energy, and pinned beneath a barbell.
Now, consider the second option. The bodybuilder has just walked away, leaving you with the barbell on your shoulders. Except this time instead of cursing the weight and the mechanism for its presence upon you, you welcome this new and unexpected challenge. Instead of simply resisting the load, you fight against it. You tighten your grip on the bar, contract your muscles, and lift that barbell over your head and show it who is in charge. Then you do it again, and again, and again, each time adapting and becoming stronger. You lift the barbell so many times that its resistance becomes comical to you, and you begin to laugh. The bodybuilder brings more plates to try to slow you down, but you have become so strong that not only can you lift the original weight easily, you can handle the new weight as well. Eventually it gets to a point where the bodybuilder gives up, and you must purposefully ask him for more weight, and you keep lifting. In the end, you fling the barbell off your shoulders, and continue to carry out your original workout. And when you get there, you notice that the original workout, which you expected to be so hard, is now easy, and you are capable of doing that workout, and much more. You have just learned how to “use the weight.”
To complete the comparison, replace the barbell in this scenario with the hardship you are facing. The key is to determine how this burden can be put to use in order to make yourself more capable of achieving the goals you have for your life. In the gym situation, the more you lifted the weight, or used it to your advantage, the more weight you were able to handle later. And, just like with the barbell, when you use the weight of a hardship to become more capable, not only will you be able to withstand that hardship, you will be in place to be able to handle even greater hardships in the future, until eventually you will be able to withstand anything life can throw at you.
Specifically how this is done is entirely dependent on the individual, their circumstances and their mission, but as long as you treat difficulty as an opportunity to adapt, regardless of what the specific adaptation must be, you will always emerge from the other side a person with greater capabilities to accomplish your life’s work. It is important to remain open and aware of any new possibilities or opportunities, and use your imagination to determine how your specific burden can be used. Remember that it may be in a way you never would have expected, or it may be in a way that you would have never considered before you carried this burden.
Such a change in mindset and approach does not happen without diligent attention and practice. You must work to develop this habit at every possible opportunity. Counterintuitively, it is most likely going to be easier to make such a change in attitude with larger, and more consequential events than it will be with everyday rudimentary occurrences. The reason for this is that the scale is so large, that it is much easier to see the possibilities for adaptation. However, since the rudimentary events are much more common, you will get vastly more frequent practice from much smaller experiences. The key either way is to maintain awareness of the “use the weight” principle in every situation. Once you develop the habit, the reaction will come much more naturally, and you will be constantly calculating how each negative occurrence in your life can be used as a tool. Ultimately, the severity of the hardship will be immaterial. The concept holds whether you have experienced a traumatic injury, or if you are stuck in traffic, or if you just spilled a glass of milk.
Using the weight is not synonymous with being happy about a tragedy. In order to use the weight, it is not required that you view hardship with an air of thankfulness or happiness. In many instances, for example, a traumatic injury, it is nearly impossible to feel thankful. The only requirement is acceptance of reality. Being able to use the weight of a tragedy is independent of how you feel about the tragedy. The opportunity, and the result will be available and will occur despite your level of enjoyment. I can guarantee, however, you will ultimately be more thankful and happier that you used the hardship to your advantage than if you let it destroy you, and missed the opportunity to become more capable.
Prior to my injury, I wanted to make a difference in the world, and leave it better than how I found it, and I was on that path in the Marine Corps. Now, seven plus years past my injury, I am making a bigger difference on a larger scale than I ever would have expected. And it is all because starting from the moment I woke up in the hospital, I did one thing: I figured out how to Use the Weight.