01/16/2013 09:02 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

How Adversity Adds Meaning to Life

Several years ago, a wise friend of mine and former Buddhist monk explained to me that challenges -- or things that we have a hard time dealing with -- are simply things we are less skilled at. In other words: certain situations feel hard, simply because we haven't practiced them enough.

I like that thought. I like this notion that I can grow and get better at even the most difficult things. That feels optimistic. I think too, this explains why even some of the best moments of our lives are laced with things that feel a bit challenging.

Take for example, my recent book tour. I was on the road in many of my favorite places -- bookstores -- talking about a topic I love -- spirituality -- with audiences that were engaged, kind and wise. It was a profound, fun, exciting and satisfying experience.

It was also tough. I missed my family. I became physically worn. I was sometimes nervous. And there was a great deal of uncertainty.

When I remembered that those feelings weren't wrong, when I recognized there was nothing to be solved, that whatever showed up was okay, I relaxed into the experience and the challenge that was a part of it. I learned a lot, had a great time and found moments filled with great meaning.

The challenge, as I knew it, came up simply because I was unskilled. I'd never lived that particular experience before, so I was learning. The uncomfortable moments were growing pains. I was expanding into my potential. Knowing that took the heat out of any of the negative feelings I encountered and allowed me to get curious.

Growing Pains

Life is like this. We know that people who are engaged in their passions are happier and healthier than others, but challenge is part of this passion too. For something to intrigue us, inspire us, drive us -- for something to become our passion -- it must also challenge us. We are not passionate about things that are easy. We are not engaged wholly by the things we have all the answers to. We are driven by our passions in part because we haven't quite mastered them.

This is true in the moments of everyday life. We are rarely entranced by the things we've got figured out -- like laundry folding or the weekly work meeting. We complain about the daily routine. Yet, when something sweeps into our lives like an illness, a death, a new job, a new baby, a divorce or other life transition, we long for the mundane moments, because we know how to handle them.

We are not as skilled dealing with the new things that enter our experience. We feel stressed, uncertain, unconfident. We must grow through them to go through them. Soon enough, we'll get better at it, but the moments when we feel less skilled can certainly be messy and even maddening.

Life won't always (read: never) serve up the pristine experience you desire, but even when it's a mess -- even when things feel totally screwed, when you don't know what to do and it seems like nothing is working -- you can trust too, that there is meaning there -- that you are growing and getting better at it. The discomfort is part of that growth. Not because you've done something in error, but because it's the practice you need to get better.

Knowing this can make the tough times a bit easier to handle.

Just Like Riding a Bike

Raising a kid is not easy. Nor is starting a new business, or healing from an illness or dealing with a death. Or staying married. Or, not staying married. Nope -- not easy. But, just because these things are difficult, sometimes scary and even sad, doesn't make our experience of them wrong. They are not bad, or flawed or an example of our failure.

They are simply growth opportunities. A chance to hone our life skills.

When you encounter one of these challenges or another, it's a bit like riding a bike the first time.

You fall off. Or run it into the curb. You run off the curb. You get skinned. You cry. You feel afraid. You may whine. Then, at some point you get up on that bike again.

This time, you do a bit better. You know a little more about how to steer that thing. Because of the fall, that singular challenge, you've become a bit more skilled. You stay on the bike longer. And the next time you fall, you learn more still.

Pretty soon you own that bike. And, when you do, you never again forget how to balance.

Life becomes a bit better because you can ride through it now. And, you take great satisfaction and meaning from this because of all of the falls you've endured.

For more by Polly Campbell, click here.

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