The Value of Difficulty

The outdoor amp where lectures are heard at Chautauqua

The title of this post was borrowed from a lecture/conversation between Anne Fadiman (who said it) and Roger Rosenblatt who offered the morning lecture together, on July 1st at Chautauqua Institution ( During the nine weeks of the Institution’s summer season there is a lecture every morning. The idea of spending a vacation attending lectures, book reviews, symphonic concerts, dance programs, opera and theater isn’t for everyone. After years of inviting people here I’ve learned that this is something you either love or something you’ll avoid.

This morning Roger asked Anne to talk about writing from a place of sorrow. She acknowledged that they’d both struggled in recent years, Roger with the loss of his adult daughter and Anne with the loss of both of her parents, cancer and miscarriages. She went on to speak of the value of difficulty. She was careful to acknowledge that personal tragedy is a very hard way to grow and learn but that in the longer view the pain enlarges who we are and adds depth to who we become as a result. The importance of struggle in dealing with sorrow and pain is a theme I’ve addressed throughout my blog because it’s such a universal experience. Poor parenting, Fadiman said, was indulging children by giving them everything, without them having to work for it. It’s common to not teach kids the value of needing to work for what they want  which discounts the value of difficulty.

Her phrase stuck with me because I experience the truth of her observation every day in my practice. I wrote a post some time ago about taking the easy way out but I like her phrasing so much better than mine.  The value of difficulty is a gauntlet thrown down before us many times over our lifetime. Too many people run away from challenges and lose themselves in drugs or alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous teaches the value of facing difficulty honestly. Just the terror of learning to tell your story over and over to a large group, is a powerful process that teaches the value of difficulty.

I miss the days of easy access to group therapy. In groups it’s much easier to embrace the value of difficulty. Strangers will say fierce things to you that friends never would. While training to become a therapist I learned with great difficulty, much more about myself during group work than I ever did one-on-one. It is undeniable that I am a better person from listening to hard truths spoken by strangers.

My favorite story that captures the value of difficulty involves my son. He is adopted and understood at a very young age that one of the reasons women give up their babies is because they’re very poor. As a therapist I was never very happy promoting the myth of Santa Claus but did it anyways. My son had been picked on for still believing in Santa and the summer before the next year of school began, I decided it was time I told him the truth. We were in a hotel room outside of Hershey Park and my husband and daughter were still asleep, when I pulled Aaron into my arms and whispered to him that I had something terrible to tell him. He began sobbing and his first words were “that must mean that poor kids don’t get toys at Christmas.” While one of the truths of adoption had been difficult to hear, the value of the difficulty was worth it because he had broadened his world view, and felt empathy deeply at a very young age.

If it’s true for him, it’s true for all of us. Don’t underestimate the value of difficulty.

4 thoughts on “The Value of Difficulty

  1. onepillawayfromchaos says:

    Oh how I value difficulty! If not for it, I would not be the grateful person I am today. I count my blessings because I know how it is to live on the dark side. I’ve made it through and overcome addiction. I am certain all things are possible and I thank God for allowing me to wake up and enjoy the gift of another day, drug free.

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

  2. M says:

    I’ve re-read this so many times. I just emailed it to another parent that I love, struggling with some difficult times with their child. It has to be about the fourth time I’ve sent this like to someone. Such good advise. Thank you, Rhoda!

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