The Beauty in Hardship

Teaching children to embrace life’s challenges

What would this picture look like had it not been for the fierce resistance put up by the Eurasian land plate against the colliding Indian subcontinent 50 million years ago?

Featureless, flat… no soaring Mt. Everest — the crown jewel of the Himalayas.

What need would there be for a hawk’s great speed and keen eyesight if its prey were not swift and elusive?

Life itself would not exist at all without the gift of sunlight which is only made possible by the crushing force of gravity pressing against the core of our nearest star, the Sun.

No resistance, no soaring beauty. No opposition, no flourishing life.

And yet, humans seem unable or unwilling to accept this fundamental principle and further seek to shield children from hardship and suffering. All at a heavy price: the tragic loss of the nobility of their spirit.

In our misguided effort to pave for children a frictionless road to the land of plenty, we are raising a generation of weak and feckless individuals addicted to instant gratification and expecting a trophy just for getting out of bed. By the time they take their first step, we tell them they’re special… so, so special! Good thing they don’t ask us why, for we would be hard-pressed to give them a valid and useful answer.

Snowflakes are not special. What they are is unique. They all start their journey as tiny ice crystals high in Earth’s atmosphere, indistinguishable from one another. Their singularity is shaped by the path each one crosses and by what they encounter on that path.

In the womb, every child is indistinguishable. At an early age, they begin to manifest a unique temperament. Their character, however, just like a snowflake, will be forged by their journey through life. The greater the challenge and resistance, the stronger, more creative, resourceful and magnificent they’ll become. Muscles, mind you, grow stronger when swimming upstream.

Our job, then, is not to remove obstacles, but to teach children how to sharpen their swords. Rather than preparing the path for the child, we must prepare the child for the path.

A child unschooled in the fundamental principle of resistance in nature will see challenges as overly daunting, unfair, and unwelcome. Which is why my book for boys begins by exposing them to this fundamental reality.

I tell them “our universe is like one ginormous, never-ending fireworks display. An enchanted story of beauty and creativity as well as extreme violence and destruction. That’s what makes it such a good story. A fairy tale without thunder and lightning, or without epic battles or fiery dragons, would not be a good story no matter how pretty the princess is.

The origins and evolutionary story of humankind are next presented to develop in the young boy’s mind a sense of gratitude in the face of the improbability of our presence on Earth; a sense of humility when considering how recent humans emerged on the cosmic stage, and to dwell on the unique opportunity we have as the only species capable of reflecting the universe’s beauty, and the choice, either to continue spoiling the cosmic story, or contribute to its magnificent unfolding.

“…even though humans might be secondary characters in the story of the Universe, we are the only ones telling the story as far as we know. We’re the ones sending telescopes into space to take pictures of the dazzling spectacle and then watching them with mouths open and dropped jaws — sometimes with tears of wonder in our eyes — because we can’t get over how elegant and graceful everything is. Just like the magic mirror in Snow White, we’re like the mirrors upon which the Universe can finally reflect itself and see how beautiful it is. We are the Universe’s best ‘selfie.’ That’s awesome! Because it means we now have the opportunity and responsibility to make sure we continue making it a wonderful story. It’s like we’ve been given a beautiful garden to care for and must decide whether to be bees, or locusts.

Bees pollinate and make gardens flourish. Locusts are mean, rapacious, and ravenous grasshoppers who swarm into a garden, destroy it, then fly off to look for the next field to consume. They’re like those death-dealing aliens in science fiction stories who go from planet to planet laying waste to all life to feed their insatiable appetite.”

I then narrate our species’ life as hunter-gatherers during the 99% of the time modern humans have been present and thrived on Earth. This I do with two objectives: to introduce them to the Life Force of Grit, and, to underscore how being out in nature helped us develop our creative imagination, social intelligence, and survival and adaptation skills. It also serves as a precautionary warning against under-nourishing these intrinsic traits and skills with a steady diet of media and video games.

“We moved all the time and learned to read the land — the jungles, forests, mountains, oceans and streams — by being closely connected to Earth. We learned to adapt to different terrains and climates. We were fit, adventurous, rugged, healthy, eating different kinds of food which helped our brains grow larger to the point of sparking something no other animal appears to have: a creative imagination!

(…)

For 99% of modern human history, or, like forever, we kept living as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth with our 30 or 50 clan members, carrying very little, owning nothing but the animal skins which protected us from the elements, our stone tools, light hunting weapons, cooking vessels, and our inventiveness. We survived through scary droughts and bitter ice ages. We were, and still are, a gritty species. The Life Force of Grit is one we all have but few choose to use. Above all the other life forces, Grit is the one you never want to do without.

To capture a young boy’s imagination and cement in his mind the value of the Life Force of Grit, I make use of metaphor, followed by a familiar story with which they can identify.

Here’s what I tell them:

Alladin

To polish rocks, you need sandpaper, which comes in different degrees of grit — from really coarse to superfine. Rocks don’t like being polished. In fact, they hate it! That’s why you hear a harsh, scraping sound when you rub sandpaper on their surface. They are the same sounds as the groans, huffs, and deep sighs we make when learning something new, like riding a bike. If we give up then, we will accomplish nothing.

If you want to be a great soccer player, cook or musician, for example, you better be ready and willing to endure a lengthy period of harsh training.

Having things easy makes everything flat and dull.

Just to see what would happen if we remove this resistance, let’s pretend you and I are Masters of the Universe and rule over nature. We’ll go out on an open field to conduct an experiment with a hawk and a mouse.

Circling above us, is the hawk, scanning the ground below in search for his next meal. Natural selection has developed in the hawk a flying speed of 120 mph, reaching 180 mph when diving for its prey. Its eyesight is eight times more powerful than the sharpest human eye. Truly a magnificent and noble creature! Suddenly, he spots a mouse. Easy lunch, one would think. But nature has made mice extremely agile and elusive, so an exciting chase is about to begin.

Since we are Masters of the Universe and control the levers of nature, let’s see what happens if we slow the mouse down a bit. To make it even easier for the hawk to find him, we’ll also gradually change the mouse’s color from camouflage brown, to neon pink. Naturally, the need for the hawk’s great speed and powerful eyesight will diminish step by step.

Let’s drop the mouse’s speed even further so that the hawk no longer needs to fly, but simply — like a chicken — give chase to the mouse on solid ground.

What will happen if we continue this experiment for the ‘benefit’ of the hawk? What if we slowed the mouse’s speed to a bare crawl? Care to guess?

In time, the once-majestic hawk would lose its wings, be almost blind, and simply lie on the ground waiting for the mouse to crawl into his open beak. Naturally, the unintended consequence of our experiment is that the hawk, in its weakened state, would become easy prey for a hungry coyote.

What have we done, young man!

By making it ‘easy’ for the hawk, we have turned him into something other than a hawk. We have taken away his power, his beauty and nobility, and made him dull.

Written in the software of what it is to be ‘Hawk’ is the need for the speed and stealth of ‘Mouse.’

Best not to mess with the laws of nature.

Nowadays, you hear a lot of young people saying things are hard, wishing someone would make things easier for them. They sound like hawks cursing at nature for making mice so speedy and elusive.

Now let’s suppose you were walking on a beach and stumbled upon a weatherworn and rusted oil lamp. Since you’ve probably seen the movie ‘Aladdin,’ you know what’s inside, so you pick it up and rub it hard with the palm of your hand.

Poof! A Genie appears.

Only this time, he won’t grant you three wishes, but only one; the one the Genie has already chosen for you. You can either accept his offer, or not.

From that day forward, the Genie promises you will never again feel challenged, rejected, sad, afraid, anxious, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed. What’s more, you will instantly forget all the bad things that ever happened to you. If fact, all your previous memories would be erased — both good and bad. From that moment, your days will be all sunshine and rainbows. No more storms, thunder, and lightning. No more obstacles or difficult challenges.

Would you accept the Genie’s ‘gift’?

Since you’ve already read about the rule of opposites governing the Universe… the one that says that for there to be light there must be darkness — meaning joy is not possible without suffering — and since you’ve made it all the way to this point in the book, you’ve proven yourself to be smart and gritty so I’m certain you’d reject the Genie’s offer, push him back into the lamp and throw it back into the ocean never to be rubbed again.

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Before Covid-19 struck our world, the outlook for boys was already grim. We’re now confronting a more formidable challenge. If there ever was a right time to fortify a boy’s psyche and gird his soul, surely this is it. To succeed in the world of their future, they will need every tool in the survivalist toolbox.

Teaching them to face hardship — with courage and grit — and preparing them for the road ahead are the greatest gifts we can give them.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to lead spirited lives of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

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When life gives you lemons…

Astounding tales of resilience.

Things are not working out. This shit’s too hard. I’m giving up. The odds are stacked against me. Life’s not fair…

Writing ‘The Hero in You is beginning to feel like a conversation with myself. I now understand what Ursula Le Gwinn meant when saying that storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.

More than a conversation unspooling in story, it’s like an extended, revelatory life-coaching session; like having a one-on-one with Obi Wan Kenobi, the legendary Jedi Master in ‘Star Wars’ training young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force.

It doesn’t feel like a book for just boys anymore but one with the potential to transform the lives of men and women; young and old alike. It’s certainly changing the life of an aspiring writer fast approaching sixty.

Take adversity for example…that bitter lemon of life.

I began the book four months ago. With still no income in sight, a small pension claimed by old debts, and credit cards maxing-out, it felt like one more reckless decision. Irresponsible! Especially in light of the slew of rejections to my Memoir assailing my inbox like a storm of jagged hailstones. After two years with little to show, starting another project seemed as futile as plowing the sea.

How about a ‘real’ job, Dad?” my daughters counseled.

I was smack inside the Inmost Cave; the edge between life and death found on every hero’s journey; the darkest hour where the hero must face his greatest fears. Think of Dorothy walking into Oz’ throne-room and facing the giant head of an angry old man surrounded by flames, smoke, and thunder; where the mighty Wizard says he’s prepared to grant Dorothy her wish but imposes seemingly impossible tests in hopes that she will desist.

I keep reminding myself I’ve been in worse financial situations before, and still here, now doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.

If this is not a real job, why does it feel so right?

J.K. Rowling was unemployed, divorced and raising a daughter on social security while writing the first Harry Potter novel. After Sidney Poitier’s first audition, the casting director instructed him to just stop wasting everyone’s time and “go be a dishwasher or something.” Poitier went on to win an Academy Award.

Sometimes in life, situations develop that only the half-crazy can get out of. — French philosopher La Rochefoucauld.

In a way, I am still inside the cave, quivering with my greatest fears: losing face with those I love — my two daughters and my partner — and the fear of a final deathblow to my lifelong dream of becoming an author stirring uncertainty of what I’d do if I fail. Add to the mix the fear of reaching the end of my life without meaningful impact…I do not want to be someone who ends up simply having visited the world.

Life’s bitter lemons…

More like first-world laments I’ve realized as I sift through hundreds of stories of real-life heroes for my book and finding astounding examples of ordinary people who turned much bitter ones into lemonade.

Some, literally, like Alexandra Scott who two days before her first birthday was diagnosed with cancer. When she was four, having just finished receiving experimental treatment at Connecticut’s Medical Center, she told her parents she wanted to set up a lemonade stand and give the money she raised to her doctors. That first stand raised $2,000.

Alexandra Scott

In the next four years, inspiring hundreds of supporters who set up lemonade stands throughout the country, ‘Alex’ raised a total of $1 million for childhood cancer research. She died at the age of eight, yet her cause lives on through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.

I then discovered William Kamkwamba, the African boy who harnessed the wind to save his family and village from starvation.

William was born in Malawi, Africa. He was the only boy among six girls in his family living in a mud and brick shack with no electricity. He was a simple farmer in a country of poor farmers.

When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, all Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate one meal per day. His father could not continue paying for his education so William dropped out of school.

“It was a future I could not accept,” William said.

Hungry all the time, with little education, poor English, and no computer or access to the internet, William spent months inside a rickety library pouring through outdated magazines and books learning all he could about physics and electricity. He dreamed of building a windmill to power a pump which would draw water from a well to irrigate their fields.

Boy who harnessed the wind

Armed with that knowledge, William scavenged through a nearby junkyard and finally convinced his father to surrender his only bicycle whose frame was needed to build the contraption. William eventually erected his windmill and saved the day.

Talk about bitter lemons turned into lifesaving lemonade!

What about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a frail and poor farming boy in 14th Century Japan?

Hideyoshi was short (about five feet tall), weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was butt ugly and unathletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him an ape-like appearance resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.

This “monkey” squeezed all the daunting lemons of his physical ‘limitations’ and ‘disadvantaged’ beginnings into practical wisdom which ultimately put an end to Japan’s Age of the Warring States and made him supreme leader!

He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.

Hideyoshi

Alexandra Scott, William Kamkwamba, and Hideyoshi are among the real-life heroes featured in my book as examples to young boys who might feel overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable odds to do something meaningful with their lives. I reassure them they do not need superpowers to break through the prison of their limitations. I then guide them — like Obi Wan — to tap the Life Forces they already possess to write their own hero story. It doesn’t have to be something extraordinary, I tell them…

“Helping a blind man cross the street because you have the power of vision is a heroic act. Helping a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.”

Boy feeding homeless

My extensive research has also led me to author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, someone much closer to my — and every writer’s experience.

In his late thirties, armed police dragged Ngugi from his home and jailed him in Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison for having written a play critical of the government. While in prison, he wrote ‘Devil on the Cross’ on toilet paper.

“The paper we were given was not the soft kind we find on television,” he says. “It was a bit hard, a bit rough, so to speak, but very good writing material. It held the pen very well.”

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A recipient of the Nonino International Prize for his work, Ngugi has also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in literature. As for that elusive prize, Ngugi says he is more interested in what he calls “the Nobel of the Heart.”

If Ngugi was capable of squeezing such nasty lemons onto toilet paper and inspire the world with his noble work, what’s my excuse?

In Spanish (my mother tongue) we have a word for such work:

‘Ofrenda’ is work offered in gratitude, love, and service to others; work dedicated to a noble cause. That’s how I consider my work on The Hero in You.

Rightly shamed by all these ordinary heroes, I am done with my first-world laments!

While still in the cave, like Dorothy, I will defy my fears and will not desist. I will see this to the end.

Failure is an option, fear is not. — James Cameron

When overwhelmed by the stacks of books and publications I must research, I attack them with a Warrior’s sword and a Lover’s heart. I remind myself that, while strapped for cash, I have found purposeful work; that sweet spot Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. Further, I am loved and am loved in return by three extraordinary women. I possess the wealth of kings. I ask for no more.

Finally, I’m committed to help as many young boys enter the path of authentic, generative manhood and won’t let them down. I consider this cause to be of supreme importance to the world.

Will my book be a hit? Will it make me money? Will I be famous? Wrong questions.

If I can stop one Heart from breaking

I shall not live in vain

If I can ease one Life the Aching

Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin

Unto his Nest again

I shall not live in Vain. — Emily Dickinson

“No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive,” wrote Ella Wheeler Wilcox. “Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity.”

Sweet are the fruits of adversity. — William Shakespeare

Dead tree with fruit

From now on, I promise to spare you my first-world laments and let my book inspire you.

Whether you support its cause or don’t, I am rewarded by believing its footprint will guide you on your own hero’s journey.


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Read the book’s version of lemons and lemonade.