If you dig deep enough, there’s always a story. Think of a truly remarkable person—the rare type with uncompromising character, compassion, conviction, novel insights, and courage. If you look hard enough at their life, there are sure to be unthinkable struggles in their past. To be clear, I’m not saying that all who suffer are transformed to greatness, but all who are great are transformed by suffering.
This transformation is the alchemy of life, reshaping our greatest pains into the foundation on which a hero can be built. As Joseph Campbell showed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, all heroes—whether in fiction or real-life—are tested and pushed beyond their limits. The future hero must face their greatest fears and “slay the dragon” in what Campbell called “the abyss.” Only after this does the hero rise like the phoenix.
We can look at some real-world heroes as examples. Would Nelson Mandela have succeeded at his life’s mission to end Apartheid if he hadn’t first been imprisoned for 27 years? Would Viktor Frankl have created a new school of psychology and written a book that changed countless lives if he hadn’t endured unthinkable suffering in the Auschwitz death camp? Would Harriet Tubman have risked life and limb to free as many enslaved people as possible if she hadn’t first lived the horrors of slavery for thirty years? I think the answer is an unequivocal “no.” Each of them had to pass through the abyss before rising as a hero.
The suffering of Tubman, Frankl and Mandela was more than I would wish on my enemies, but the power they derived from it leaves history in awe. They took their suffering and used it to become exceptional, just as the alchemist turns lead into gold.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
– Ernest Hemingway
In comparison, any suffering we go through is likely to be minute, but it still has the power to transform us into elevated versions of ourselves. And there is nothing more honorable or respectable than to have endured, to have been transfigured and improved through hardship.
The problem is that many of us want to be a hero, but we don’t want to go through the hero’s journey, and we certainly don’t want to pass through the abyss. So we run from suffering, and we hide from our fears. We push our worst pains deep inside, suffocating their innate power to transform us into what we yearn to become.
Instead of running from struggle, we should rather face our pains and heartaches with courage, viewing them as an asset. What can we learn from this pain? How will this heartache make us better people moving forward? Is there any wisdom to be gleaned from this experience?
There are many names for this kind of thinking. You can call it resilience or stoicism, but I call it alchemy. And I know each of us can become an alchemist in our own life, with the ability to take the lead that life gives us in the form of hardship and turn it into the gold of wisdom.
P.S. — I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am for every person who reads this. I would really love to hear if this triggered any thoughts for you, whether good or bad. Did I swing and miss on this post? Let me know. Did this post make you think about some aspect of life differently? I’d love to hear it. I am on a journey of self-improvement, so your feedback is priceless. Also, if you know anyone who may enjoy this, please feel free to send it along to them. Lastly, you can subscribe to get notified whenever I publish something new by clicking here. Many thanks for your time and attention, and best wishes on your life’s journey.