The Obstacle Is The Way
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.
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I recently enjoyed an excellent book, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William Irvine. I also enjoyed your book a lot, Dr. Lickerman. I really like the scientific view you present, and also your focus, not necessarily on peace and contentment, but rather on building inner strength (which of course can help bring peace and contentment).
I’ve read Buddhist wisdom for many years now, but I’ve only recently started learning anything about Stoicism. I always incorrectly assumed it was some obscure group of philosophers who just believed in eliminating emotion as much as possible. I’ve been happy to begin discovering the richness of the philosophy and its overlap with Buddhist thinking.
I’ve meant to email and ask you if you were familiar with Stoicism, because I think it goes so well with much of your writing, so I’m pleased to see you talking about the connections. I don’t think you talked about it in your book, but I might be wrong.
While I agree with the idea that transcending life’s obstacles makes you stronger, more resilient, and possibly more confident and calm as you say, I don’t follow how that necessarily makes you happier.
For example: if your child dies, how can you “transform even the most horrific tragedy into the very thing we need to become happier than we currently are”? I might be able to overcome this, and maybe even help others find peace and acceptance, but happier than before??
So, you have to stay with your obstacle . . . not running from it, nor denying it. But, on the other hand, you cannot obsess about it, nor ruminate about it till you can no longer sleep.
As I see it, you have to make it a part of your everyday life, like an enemy that you have befriended.
An example would be cancer. Someone close to me has cancer. She has had surgery and now must extend treatment with radiation and chemotherapy. She has other goals, which she feels she must continue to pursue. She must raise her children, get them fed and clothed and off to school every day. She has jobs and interests that she continues to pursue. But, like death itself in some cultures, the cancer is just an arm’s length away, off to her left. She says she doesn’t feel home-free, despite reassurances from her team of doctors. She is wary. She is on-guard. She doesn’t have the same kind of blind hopefulness that she had before her diagnosis. She is trying to stay with the obstacle but not obsess.
For me, aging is the obstacle—and presumably, the way. I would love to deny, to buy into the props that promise eternal youth/vigor. I don’t see clearly how to do it on a daily basis, though.
I think I can guess what you would suggest, Alex: meditation. Yes?
I read your book The Undefeated Mind last year and found it to be very inspirational and hit close to home in my personal life. Now as I am in the recovery from a failed relationship, once again I find solace from reading your blog. My heartfelt thanks to you, Alex.
I am struggling in my marriage after my husband’s financial infidelity and spending addiction has crippled our relationship. We have a big family, our children are young, and when I lost my job just before the recession, we decided I’d stay home to raise our children. So now I have no job, haven’t worked in several years, and two years after discovering the secret debt, I am having serious doubts about whether I will ever forgive him. I have struggled with depression on and off during my life, but the sense of hopelessness I feel is so overwhelming. I am suffering in my marriage, can’t afford a divorce, and hate the idea of putting my baby in daycare to return to work. (I never got over putting my firstborn in daycare; it is against my personal beliefs.) I’d have to go on government assistance to survive. Do you think my marriage can be saved? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel here?
I’ve just stumbled across your website. I lost my husband of 30 years almost 3 years ago to suicide and I just can’t get past the guilt for not encouraging him to seek medical help for his depression and subsequent alcohol abuse and I’m a nurse. I feel like this guilt and grief will never leave me and its now consumes me and im having real trouble moving forward. Can you suggest a book that might help. I’d appreciate your advice. Thanks Donna.
Donna: I’m so sorry for your loss. Truly awful. It seems to me you need to find a way to have compassion for yourself. This is often far more difficult than it seems. I talk about this in my book, The Undefeated Mind, in the chapter “Let Go.” Perhaps you might find that helpful?