What’s the worst problem you have right now? Have you lost your home? Your job? Are you worried you might? Or are you facing a terrible illness?
Long-time readers of this blog know much of my philosophy has been shaped by my study and practice of Buddhism. One of the most useful concepts I’ve adapted is the concept of changing poison into medicine. That is, from the Buddhist perspective, all people are endowed with the innate ability to create value out of any situation, no matter how awful or tragic. Unlike the idea that every cloud has a silver lining—that something positive can always be found in everything negative—the principle of changing poison into medicine explains that we can transform even the most horrific tragedy into the very thing we need to become happier than we currently are.
This concept isn’t, of course, unique to Buddhism. According to Ryan Holiday, author of the new book The Obstacle is the Way, the ancient Stoics argued the same thing. As the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, wrote: “Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
This notion that the obstacles that prevent us from achieving our goals can be used—and in some cases may even be necessary—to achieve those very goals seems not just Pollyanna-like but also paradoxical. If an obstacle lies in our way, how can it possibly be used to achieve our goal?
The answer may be different depending on the obstacle itself. Sometimes, for example, failure itself is a benefit—failure that forces us to pursue an alternative path we wouldn’t have otherwise considered but that turns out to be the best way, if not sometimes the only way, to achieve a goal. At other times, the true obstacle isn’t the obstacle in front of us but the obstacle inside of us. Perhaps it’s our inflexibility, our arrogance, or our fear, but when victory over external barriers is contingent upon victory over internal ones, the greatest benefit a situation has to offer us is training—by which I mean a challenge that forces us to grow in a way that makes achieving our goal possible. If we want to establish and maintain a successful long-term romantic relationship, for example, but we’re too full of anger—or fear, or insecurity—to manage it, a string of failed relationships might seem like nothing but obstacles in the way of our goal. But if we ask ourselves what such failures have to offer us and look inward, we may discover that only the pain of experiencing such failures has the power to motivate us to challenge our shortcomings and change in such a way that makes our goal possible.
Second, in encountering obstacles, benefits often arise that we never expected that, even as we find ourselves blocked from obtaining our goal, open up opportunities that are even better than what we wanted originally and a victory even greater than we expected. One such benefit is simply this: in going through a terrible trial—say a terrible illness or a great loss—and surviving it, we become uniquely positioned to offer support and hope to others going through the same thing in the future.
Finally, in Buddhism and Stoicism both, encountering obstacles is considered, paradoxically, the path to a life of “comfort and ease.” For only in facing a strong enemy are we able to become strong ourselves. And only in developing strength can we navigate life’s challenges with a sense of confidence and calm. Even if an obstacle prevents you from attaining your goal, in the act of working hard to overcome it, you’ll undoubtedly learn something that will serve you well in the future.
Holiday’s book acknowledges all of this and does one more crucial thing: it includes examples of people from history who’ve turned obstacles in front of them into the way forward. What made this book such a wonderful read for me—what makes it so useful to someone who already knows all these principles and strives to live by them every day—is that the stories it tells offer what is perhaps the most effective kind of help that anyone who’s going through a difficult time needs: encouragement. What we need when the going gets tough isn’t a blueprint that offers a series of steps to solve a problem (for no such blueprint could ever cover all possible problems with enough specificity to be useful), but rather a series of stories that will convince us that we can figure out the steps to solving our problems ourselves. For in my experience, believing you can succeed when you don’t know exactly how is the most difficult of beliefs to muster, but the one you must in order to do as Holiday argues we can: turn all our trials into triumph.