Reconciling ourselves with the universality of pain seems a crucial ingredient for living joyfully. As long as we seek fulfillment in external circumstances, we set ourselves up for failure and discontent. In fact, as long as we expect to find perfect lasting joy in life, we will surely fail and be disappointed. Life, without fail, is difficult, and full of challenges, and joy is always fleeting. A minor illness or disappointment can quickly remind us of our mortality and vulnerability, but also reminds us to be grateful for our blessings and positive experiences.
Acknowledging this could easily lead to a depressing and passive view of life and our role in it. While we cannot change many of the circumstances of this strange existence in which we find ourselves, we have a choice how to deal with those circumstances – a choice between living tragically or living heroically.
A tragic life seems to imply defeat and giving up in the face of obstacles and pain. Living tragically suggests a sense of hopelessness, despair, and an undue focus on the negative around us. A person who lives tragically often invokes sympathy and a feeling that life is unfair. Remaining imprisoned in ourselves through inflexible personality traits, temptations, doubts or passivity, tends to foster a tragic outlook on life. People with this outlook often consider themselves realists, leaving no illusions about life’s hardships. They consider their tragic conclusions simply logically derived from life experiences and facts and see their negativity as a result of intellectual honesty (google Depressive Realism). Yet, this approach is unlikely to yield joy or inner peace.
Since life is inherently hard, it is ultimately easy to live tragically, for if we look for reasons to despair, we generally don’t have to look long to find them.
If we cannot change our circumstances, what we make of then mentally and what else we make of our life determines if we live tragically or heroically. Like living tragically, living heroically requires struggle and things to be overcome – of which there is never a shortage in life. The difference lies in our attitude and perspective. Living heroically requires making deliberate choices and taking an active stance in life. It implies never giving up hope, and enduring to the end, while we make the best of even the worst of circumstances.
A heroic life can still seem tragic to onlookers, but it is usually accompanied by an element of inspiration and a glimpse into the greatness of the human soul. A heroic life invokes awe and inspires us to better ourselves. Victor E. Frankl’s depiction of his incarceration in a German Concentration Camp in his book Man’s Search for Meaning certainly describes some of the most tragic circumstances ever created by humans, but the author’s account is uniquely inspiring. Similar, Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir A Place to Stand has many tragic elements, but is also immensely inspiring.
Living heroically requires a higher cause
Living heroically requires consistency between what we believe and what we do and dedicate ourselves to. It requires a higher purpose in the face of which our difficulties dwindle. There is a lot of life-affirming and creative power in this approach to life. It requires a faith in life’s ultimate goodness and in something higher than ourselves. It requires courage, joyful sacrifice, and submitting ourselves to something meaningful and larger than ourselves. It certainly does not mean being loud, obnoxious, or arrogant. It involves a quiet, humble, and determined shift in perspective.
Jesus Christ lived the ultimate heroic life and gave the ultimate sacrifice by atoning for our sins and imperfections. He suffered willingly all the pain ever endured and yet to be endured by all mankind, to bring about eternal life and salvation. He acted purely out of love for all human beings, thus making his mission the most heroic and beautiful known to mankind. Learning to live heroically involves learning to embrace our struggles and turn them into something beautiful.
The Mormon perspective
In the Mormon view, life on earth is hard because it is supposed to be that way. A big part of our purpose here is to deal with difficult things that help us learn and grow.
The prophet Nephi in the Book of Mormon writes:
For it must needs be that there is opposition in all things. If not so, […] righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.
And regarding Adam and Eve, Nephi states:
And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. […] [W]herefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
Indeed, without the hardships of life, we would have no concept of gratitude, joy, or the inspiring beauty of a heroic approach to life. Even sin – a universal consequence of our imperfect human state, exemplified by Adam and Eve’s transgression, was necessary for God’s plan, which is also called the plan of salvation (Moses, 6:52-62) or plan of happiness (Alma, 42:8).
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
Focusing on the bigger picture
The eternal perspective provided in Mormon theology allows us to focus on a bigger picture. If we see ourselves and others as eternal beings with divine potential who are all highly imperfect, but trying to do our best and trying to figure things out, we can then be much less critical, more kind and forgiving. And we can finally arrive at a point where we can enjoy the beauty of this human experience, including the beauty and strength that can be found in dealing with difficult things.
This does not mean that we continuously try to delude ourselves and turn every hard thing into a joyful experience. Instead, it involves an acceptance that sometimes we will simply be sad, restless, miserable, sick, hurt, and angry. This sense of joy and peace is not a fixed state, but something that must be worked for continuously through a constant wrestling with the highly complex concepts, emotions, forces, and circumstances that make up life. Yet, of we accept the inherent dualism in life with a sense of inner peace and assurance that ultimately life is good and worth our best effort, we have come a long way in the pursuit of joy.