One of the adages that I try to remember when the going gets tough is pretty simple. A close family friend first said it to me and it’s only four words long:
We grow through pain.
It’s easy to remember, it’s a little more comforting than Nietzsche’s “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, and most importantly, it’s 100% true.
Think about the life stories of famous people, of your family and friends, and of yourself – what stands out the most? Sure, definitely the happy moments and successes are what keep us going. But how do people really learn about themselves? How do they grow and mature into the people they are today? From personal experience, it’s been through the tribulations and challenges that I discovered the most about myself.
Transitioning from university to the working world, I spent sixteen months travelling and teaching ESL in Asia. For the first year, I was living in South Korea, and had the absolute time of my life. I was working with other foreign teachers and made fast friends, my students were excited and curious, and the city was dynamic and easy to get around. Life was, in a word, a blast.
When my contract was up, I decided that I didn’t yet have Asia out of my system, so I chose to extend my time in Asia and try teaching somewhere new: China.
Without sounding too melodramatic, the four months I spent in The People’s Republic were absolutely miserable. My school placed me in a slum apartment with roommates I couldn’t relate to, I was sick constantly from the food and the pollution, my students were little hell-raisers, and I just couldn’t seem to make friends.
One day, while on the hour-long commute home from my school, I just about broke down. I had been sick with a sinus infection that wouldn’t go away, I was so incredibly frustrated with my students for constantly being disrespectful, and I knew I was going home to my apartment where my horrible roommates were lurking. In that moment, I wanted to be anywhere else in the world than as the only foreign face on that congested subway car. On top of that, it was a few days before Christmas and I was so unspeakably lonely and homesick that I wanted to curl up into a ball right then and there. I remember trying to Skype with family and friends back home to get some comfort, but my internet connection was so terrible that conversations simply weren’t possible on a regular basis.
Safe to say, others have faced much, much tougher challenges than that in life – let me make it clear that I’m aware of that! But at that moment, I had never felt more lost.
In the face of my predicament, the thing that saved me in China was reading. I decided that if I was miserable with my surroundings, I’d read as much as possible about other places I wanted to be in. So, with the help of my e-reader, and authors like Ernest Hemingway, Haruki Murakami, and W.O. Mitchell, I was transported to the streets of Paris, Tokyo, and small-town Canada. It was a much needed escape.
I only lasted four months in China, but I survived. At the time, I felt trapped and completely alone, but I made it through. I learned a lot of different things, like how to navigate through a sea of people on rush hour trains, how to order food with only hand gestures, and how to feel totally lost and make the best of it. I wouldn’t exchange that for anything.
I recently caught up with a friend and was recalling some of my stories from China. In this particular tale, I was explaining how I had ordered some food on the street and couldn’t determine what I was eating – was it chicken? Fish? Lizard? Rat? It could have been any of the above, but my insides told me it was the latter. At the time, it was a truly traumatizing meal, but in telling the story to my friend, we both had tears running down our faces from laughing so hard.
From this experience, I’ve realized that it’s the struggles in life that provide us with the opportunities to push ourselves – to see what we are really capable of. While in China, I learned a lot about what makes me happy and what makes me miserable, and what I can do to get by. To be sure, feeling overwhelmed, lost, and lonely are nothing new to the human condition – but having to deal with these issues, on my own, made me more resilient.
I now also have a great cocktail party story about how I ate rat in China.
For further reading, check out the article called “What Suffering Does” by the NY Times columnist, David Brooks, who inspired this post.