Struggle as Asset | June 27, 2021 Message by Dr. Blake
Blessed is s/he who endures under trial; for when s/he has stood the test, s/he will get the crown of life which is promised to all who love the Eternal. — James 1:12
For a large number of people, June 15 was a great day of rejoicing. Many of the restrictions put in place during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic were lifted. Sighs of relief were breathed from lives that had been sheltered in place for months, over a year in some places. The rescinding of mandates signaled a return to freedom, or perhaps more accurately, liberty – the liberty to move around as one pleases. Certainly, stay at home orders, mandatory mask wearing, physical distancing, and so many other inconveniences have taken their toll. Lethargy has become a familiar companion.
We have not been able to see loved ones in hospitals, senior housing, and hospices. Many have had to postpone needed surgery. Students at all levels of study learned virtually without the warm physical presence and animation of teachers and classmates. Travel had to be postponed. Worship services in designated religious spaces were prohibited. Dining out has been severely restricted. Many businesses including my favorite Oakland restaurant have failed to survive during this special time in the life of the nation and world.
Restrictions causing us to have to struggle with existence in a new way were particularly difficult for those of us in the United States. For we are not people who like struggle.
Many years ago, I was appalled by Black parents who were giving their children assets that many of us only received after years of work during our adulthoods. When questioned, the response was that they did not want their children to have to struggle like they had had to do.
Yet, struggle is an ongoing aspect of living. If one engages it as part of life’s offering, one may find purpose for being alive. Excerpts from Jo Boaler’s “Why Struggle Is Essential for the Brain – Our Lives,” are quite informative.
As parents and teachers, we do just about everything we can to make sure that children don’t struggle. It turns out we are making a terrible mistake. Research shows that struggling is absolutely critical to mastery and that the highest achieving people in the world are those who have struggled the most. The more I communicate this message to parents and teachers the more stories I hear of complete personal transformation.
Neuroscientists have found that mistakes are helpful for brain growth and connectivity and if we are not struggling, we are not learning. Not only is struggle good for our brains but people who know about the value of struggle improve their learning potential. This knowledge would not be earth shattering if it was not for the fact that we in the Western world are trained to jump in and prevent learners from experiencing struggle.
An international study of mathematics teaching found that teachers in Japan put their students in places of struggle 44 percent of the time in classrooms—they saw this less than 1 percent of the time in U.S. classrooms. What do we parents and teachers do instead? We jump in and show the way, offering steps to a solution to help save our students from struggle. . .. we are culturally trained to feel bad, and to rush in and help, when this is probably the last thing we should do.
The research on the impact of struggle turns out to help adults too—in all sorts of jobs. I interviewed sixty-two people for my new book, “Limitless Mind.” Many of them shared similar accounts of how they used to go into meetings afraid they would be found out for not knowing something. After learning about the importance of not knowing and of engaging in struggle they now proudly show up and say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” They display a mindset of discovery and curiosity, which has helped their lives in many ways.
Once we stop the charade of knowing everything, and embrace knowing less, with a willingness to sit with uncertainty, unexpected things happen.
When I tell young learners that struggle and mistakes are the best times for our brains, it is freeing. Students no longer give up on problems when they find them hard—they push through the struggle to the wonderful places on the other side. When students look at me with a puppy dog face and say: “This is hard,” I say, “That is fantastic. That feeling of ‘hard’ is the feeling of your brain developing, strengthening and growing”.
I am not arguing that knowledge is bad or knowing answers is not helpful. What I am saying is that knowledge is less important than a mindset of discovery and curiosity. We cannot achieve anything creative without being comfortable with mistakes and struggle—and we should all embrace times of struggle, knowing they are helping our brains. When we adopt a limitless perspective, approaching different jobs and conversations with a comfort with uncertainty and struggle, with a willingness to learn from others and with a flexible approach to problems, outcomes improve—in learning and in life.
Many outstanding contributors to society – too numerous the name here – have struggled with physical, emotional, mental, and material challenges – hearing, seeing, speaking, compromised bodies, poverty, physical abuse, disinheritance, systemic violence, rejection. Yet, they engaged the struggle, grew, and accomplished great things through that engagement. We constantly seek direction for our lives given the complexity of existence and myriad scenarios competing for our fidelity.
Dr. Howard Thurman understood the importance of struggle years prior to Boaler’s work. He reflects on this notion in his meditation “Struggle Is an Aspect of Life.”
Again and again we seek to escape from the struggle of life. It is perfectly normal to long for, yea, even to seek some quiet retreat from the struggle in which we engage constantly. One need hardly be ashamed of such feeling and desires. Sometimes the struggle has to do with the matter of searching a living, of keeping alive with some measure of dignity and decency. Often it has to do with a total series of relationships, personal or impersonal. Or again, it may have to do with the fight for life against the ravages of some insidious disease. In its most dramatic form it may have to do with some inner temptation, some profound battle or the will to do with one’s own spirit that which seems to be right, when some easier way looms large on the horizon.
The interesting thing to remember is, one’s own struggle is individual but it is not unique. All of life is involved – in fact, struggle is an inescapable aspect of life itself....
The struggle of man seems to be more marked because man knows that he is struggling, which means that he must struggle even as he abides the thought of a struggle – a double portion. This double struggle is underscored by the difference between the private ends of the individual and the impersonal purposes and forces that surround him. But there is always strength for struggle. The sure knowledge of the fact gives wings to the spirit even when the struggle is deepest. It is the insistence of religion that the God of life and the God of religion are one and the same. Implicit in the struggle, which is part of life, is the vitality that life itself supplies. To affirm this with all of one’s passionate endeavor is to draw deeply upon the resource available to anyone who dares to draw upon it. The aliveness of life and the power of God move through the same channel at the point of greatest need and awareness. What precious ingredients!
We don’t like struggle. We seek to avoid it. That is one of the major reasons that the inequities revealed during the pandemic have persisted. We have refused to deal with our own inner struggles and contradictions and the isms at the foundation (heart) of our nation.
It is very difficult to talk seriously about racism for example. To do so would mean to question the very document upon which the Supreme Court of the land uses to vote yea or nay on contemporary matters brought to its attention. To do so would mean for each person involved in the discussion to be vulnerable. It would mean that the institutions and systems we credit for producing a society of comfort for many would also be seen as perpetrators and perpetuators of the brutal inequities unearthed by the coronavirus pandemic. It would mean understanding that our private corporations are too big, not just too big to fail. They fail because they are too big.
Biblically, it was struggle that transformed Jacob into Israel. Prior to his struggling with the disguised messenger of God, he had questions such as his relationship to his brother, Esau, whom Jacob had cheated out of his birthright and about the purpose and direction of his life. There was not much to him. However, the powerful encounter with the stranger was so intense, so thoroughly personal and intimate, that he emerged with a limp and a new way of walking, as a new person, with a new name, and purpose, both personal and for a people.
Our enslaved ancestors related to this as they looked at their own struggles to affirm their humanity, personhood, and connections with the angels watching over them even amid their oppression.
As they related to the ladder of Jacob’s celestial encounter, they realized their own accountability to life at large. Thurman states that they raised the question: “How have you lived your life in the knowledge of your truth?” What an interrogating thought and possible indictment this understanding is! Each one who sang this song had to answer the question for each self.
Struggle is about finding oneself, over and over. It allows the reaffirmation of purpose and invites the spirit of the living God to fill the parched spirit again and again. It is about removing the cataracts so that one can clearly see what is ahead and beholding it.
Jesus also agonized with the obligations he had placed on his life and the time duration he desired to fulfill the obligations. Perhaps, the end was coming sooner than he had desired. Matthew 26: 37 “. . . and when he began to feel distressed and agitated, he said to them, “My heart is sad, sad even to death; . . . My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me. Yet, not what I will but what thou wilt.” . . . Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.”
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales,
and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits
In joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of
mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill. – Tagore