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Do Hard Things

Four ancient lessons on the upsides of challenge.

Do Hard Things

Last Saturday, I received a message on LinkedIn from Jackie Woodside. She’s a Boston-based therapist and executive coach by weekday who gives sermons at churches around the U.S. and Canada on the weekends. She wrote:

“I just finished The Comfort Crisis and will be incorporating it (and quoting you) at a Palm Sunday Service. My talk will be titled ‘Jesus did hard things and so should you!’”

I had to laugh. About a decade ago, I believed I was going to hell and that was that. But I cleaned up my life, and now my work is apparently inspiring sermons. The universe works in mysterious ways, indeed.

Today I’m not entirely religious. But I am spiritual. I think deeply about what Joseph Campbell called “the inner-value, the rapture that is associated with being alive.” Considering the teachings of all religions and ancient myths helps me do that. Many of them can inform us about the experience of living well today.

I replied to Jackie on Monday morning. I wanted to know more about her sermon and what the average person could draw from it—no matter if that person is religious in the sense that the pope is religious, semi-religious, or as atheist as Christopher Hitchens. It wasn’t only Jesus who found upsides for himself and others through doing hard things. The idea that challenge creates positive change is a theme found in all faiths, ancient myths, political movements, and the stories of everyday people like you and me.

“The paradox I want to explore today—one that I feel is not talked about or embraced often enough…,” Jackie said in her sermon, “is that to embody and live (like) Christ also means that sometimes we have to do hard things and embrace the suck.”

Life used to put hard things in our path often. But, as you know if you read The Comfort Crisis, we live in a world where it’s far easier to avoid hard things. We can exist in a bubble where we can avoid physical, mental, and emotional discomforts.

In her sermon, Jackie explained the premise of The Comfort Crisis and how this bubble can cause many problems. She fired off a few ideas from the book and said, “While we don't really do hard things anymore like our ancestors did, we more often experience the notion that ‘life is hard.’ We are so stressed and overburdened all the time. Life expectancy among young people continues to decline due to ‘deaths of despair.’ The answer to this conundrum, I believe, is to embrace doing hard things. Jesus did hard things, and so should we.”

I ran Jackie’s ideas past my friend Tyler Daswick. He’s an editor at National Geographic and the writer of a popular Christian newsletter called DudeNotes (it’s currently on hiatus as Tyler takes over more duties at National Geographic).

He explained, “A lot of creepy old men on TV have painted Christianity as a one-way ticket to private jets and dinners with celebrities, but the historical Jesus of Nazareth lived a deeply uncomfortable life. In fact, he taught his followers they could expect discomfort if they lived as he did. Jesus wasn't walking hard roads for bragging rights or even self-actualization; he was working to bring compassion, healing, and dignity to marginalized people. Jesus said he ‘came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28). He truly sought to relinquish his comfort for others.”

So, like, WWJD? Heading into Easter weekend, here are four lessons we can learn from him and other stories embedded in religion and mythology.

Do What Terrifies You

Jackie told her congregation, “As a therapist for over 30 years, I’ve heard many sad things. Tragedies, more trauma than you can imagine, and untold stories of the horrors of what we human beings are capable of inflicting on one another.”’

But a quieter, more insidious sad story she hears revolves around fear. “I hear over and over again the stories of talented, brilliant, loving, creative, inspiring people not fulfilling their calling for one reason: They’re afraid of what people will think of them. Or afraid to fail. Or that they’ll be laughed at in some way.”

The story of the Agony in the Garden tells us that progress comes from confronting our great fears. It’s the final night of Jesus’ life. He knows he’ll be betrayed and tortured to death the next day—and he’s terrified of what’s to come.

But he prayed and acted, accepting his God’s will so that he could help others, Jackie said. You don't necessarily have to pray, but getting over fear will require action. Or else you'll stay paralyzed by it.

This same idea is embedded in Islam and Buddhism. The Prophet Mohammed told his followers to always trust Allah despite fear. Fear was one of the three temptations the Buddha had to overcome to become enlightened.

Science backs the idea that facing fear is a good thing. Research consistently shows that “exposure therapy,” where we slowly ramp up exposure to what we’re afraid of, is arguably the most effective way to overcome fear, PTSD, and anxiety.

Live Simply

Tyler explained, and I’ll let him take it away here because he’s a wonderful writer:

"In his most famous speech, Jesus said: ‘Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ ... But seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you’ (Matthew 6:31-33). When we worry about protecting ourselves, we lose sight of how we can serve others. Jesus and his disciples left behind homes, careers, and sometimes their families to teach and heal the sick. They had no permanent home; Jesus himself was driven from his hometown. Once, the disciples grew so hungry on the road that they ate grainheads straight from a nearby field (Matthew 12). But they never starved, and the gospels claim that before Jesus died, he had personally fed and healed thousands of needy people. Simple living kept him open-handed."

Modern life is great, but it’s not simple. The average home contains more than 10,000 things. Americans throw away 1/3 of the food we produce. Schedules are more packed than ever. We consume nearly 11 to 13 hours of digital media each day.

An easy win: Instead of going all Marie Kondo and purging your stuff, learn to exercise pause before your next Amazon Prime purchase. If you realize you don’t really need the item, maybe donate half of its cost to a charity of your choice.

The longevity researcher Alex Bishop told me that people who spend more time serving others tend to live longer and register higher happiness levels.

Speak Truth to Power

“We could cite dozens if not hundreds of examples of Jesus speaking truth to power,” Jackie said in her sermon. For example, in Matthew 23, Jesus calls out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and mistreatment of people.

“And we can look at contemporary examples of this today as well,” Jackie said. “Malala Yousafzai continues to speak out against the Taliban in support of girls' education and women's rights, despite surviving an assassination attempt in 2012. Or Colin Kaepernick, who sacrificed his career as an NFL quarterback when he took a knee during the national anthem and spoke out about police brutality and systemic racism against Black Americans.”

Positive change is difficult. But most change doesn't come from epic struggles. Inciting even a little growth—for example, having a tough conversation with a loved one, confronting a work superior about an injustice in the office, and more—is hard.

“Yet too often I hear from my clients or friends, or I feel myself ‘I better not say that,’ or ‘I don't want to upset them,’ or ‘What will they think of me?’” Jackie said in her sermon. See point one: Embrace fear and act.

This doesn’t mean we should all pick fights over everything we disagree with. Winning the larger war comes from figuring out which battles are worth fighting. My friend Melissa Urban wrote a fantastic guidebook of tactics for these difficult conversations, called The Book of Boundaries.

Embrace Solitude

Here’s Tyler again:

“Jesus' most rugged trial might be his 40-day wilderness fast. The gospels of Matthew and Luke say he went alone into the wilderness and ate nothing for 40 days and 40 nights (the Bible loves counting nights, too, as if we were concerned Jesus was sneaking a cheat meal at 11pm)—the gospel of Mark even says Jesus ‘was with the wild animals’ (Mark 1:13). Pretty gnarly. Jesus fasted and often prayed in solitude to focus on serving, even when people were clamoring for his attention: ‘Great crowds gathered to hear him...but he would withdraw to lonely places and pray’ (Luke 5:15-16). Solitude helped Jesus stay dedicated, focused, and attentive.”

Spending time alone outdoors is a classic narrative. Joseph Campbell points out that the Buddha gained enlightenment after retreating under the Bodhi tree for 49 days. Moses hiked to the top of a mountain alone to get the tables of the law. Every Greek city was founded by heroes who went off on solo quests.

This wild solitude isn’t easy. But it’s where we come to the center of our own existence and emerge back into society better for it. It’s why I do an extended solo, silent ruck or run in the Mojave desert near my home every Sunday.

2% Top Two

My two favorite things from last week …

Goruck Sand Medicine Ball

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Utah’s New Social Media Law

Utah dropped a zinger of a social media law. Starting next year, social media companies must verify the age of their Utah-based users. Any users under 18 will need parental consent to open an account. Parents will also have full access to the accounts of their kids. There will be social media curfews, advertisement changes, and more. I polled ~100 of my university students, who are mostly between 18 and 20. About 70 percent thought the law was a good thing. The other 30 percent thought it was a bad thing. The group who thought the law was a good thing referred to research (and personal anecdotes) about how social media seems to hurt teen mental health. The group against the law pointed out that social media is how many marginalized teens connect with likeminded people.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. Look for an email with a big announcement on 5/1.

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