Do This One Thing to Survive Life’s Great Tests
I have survived two of Life’s Great Tests in my life. I won’t go into detail about them because it doesn’t really matter what they are because no matter who you are, where you live, or what your beliefs, if any at all, you will likely encounter periods of prolonged upheaval and even sometimes physical and/or emotional pain or suffering in your life. Sometimes these Tests will come at once in the form of all three.
There are of course the usual small inconveniences and short spurts of disruption that frustrate and deter us usually temporarily from our chosen paths and are the marks of a fairly normal life. What I’m talking about here are the more significant and emotionally taxing detours that I refer to as The Great Test or Tests as the case may be.
It is, according to the Buddha, a universal truth that suffering is inevitable. In the bible the christian God allows Job to endure immeasurable suffering seemingly for sport in order to win a wager with satan. A Great Test is such a period of prolonged suffering that may entice you to question, “why me?”
Struggling or struggled through a messy divorce? Coping with caring for a sick child? Fighting cancer? Recovering from substance dependency? Adjusting to the loss of a parent or other first degree loved one? You are enduring, or, if you are already on the other side of it, have endured A Great Test.
I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty that at some point in your life you will endure A Great Test. If you are lucky, there may only be one. You may have multiple Great Tests. You may survive one Great Test to find yourself smack in the midst of another. One might sneak up on you after years of peace and comfort. You may notice patterns in yourself and others that drive the cycles of the Great Test forward in your life. You may trip over the same rock a thousand times before you learn to walk around it. This is expected because the next Great Test you face is almost always seasoned by your performance on all prior tests. Sometimes the patterns may feel erratic and chaotic, other times, predictable and familiar, which you should not mistake for healthiness or appropriateness.
Whatever the Test, whatever you are facing, take heart.
Your performance on and the only measure of passing the Test depends on one thing: your ability to coexist with it and to let the greatest parts of yourself control the narrative around your experience by controlling your thoughts and moving them forward to the end you hope and expect to reach.
This is true even if the test costs you your life as it sometimes does. Not in every instance and every moment are you expected to be a higher version of you, but in the potentially long arc of your experience, this should be your ever present aspiration. You should aspire to each step moving you forward to that higher self and whatever virtues you expect her or him to possess. This may require you to manipulate your own thoughts, to use mantras or positive affirmations, to sustainably reward small positive steps, to distract or motivate yourself with positive behaviors like exercise, drinking more water, eating healthier foods, even when they don’t feel desirable or easy, until the higher thoughts become your nature or second nature.
We learn how to respond to trauma over time and repeated testing sharpens those responses for better or worse. You may be stronger for having endured an earlier test, quicker to bounce back, more resilient, less likely to be controlled by the circumstances of your fate, but you might not be either and that’s ok too. Keep moving your thoughts forward. Even if the pattern doesn’t look the way you want it to, you only have control over the present moment. When you accept this universal truth, The Great Test feels less like a test and more like a path, which it is.
Step by step, as we encounter these Tests, we build our lives, ourselves and our souls through our movement along the paths before us. Whether we are in the middle of a Great Test in the present moment or not, the path forks like lightening depending on how we react and interact with the world around us. Sometimes, in the thickest part of A Great Test, the path may narrow — it may be singular, steep, or brambled. We may simultaneously be paralyzed by the Test and feel sometimes a sense of creeping dread that if we stay in the same place or moment that we may be ensnared in our suffering permanently. This sense of paralyzing hopelessness can make us morose or worse. This is why movement is so essential to passing Great Tests. It doesn’t mean you can’t wallow when suffering befalls you, just that you can’t wallow incessantly and simultaneously expect to move forward past your suffering and through your Great Test.
This is ancient wisdom: throughout the Bible, the Christian God rewards movement. This is often simplified in the expression, “God helps those who help themselves.” Time after time, parable after parable, it is the people who move who are blessed. Moses had to wander in the desert, Ruth had to follow her mother-in-law, Jacob had to return home to his family. This imperative to move can mean physical movement as it does in their stories, but the metaphor applies aptly to movement of thought and other invisible forms of movement as well.
Stagnant thought can lead to failure as quickly and decisively as failure to act in the physical world. The imperceptible to us movements inside our bodies that operate on a cellular level to produce thought are just as significant. Because of how the universe works, you will be rewarded for those thought movements as greatly as you would be for more tangible physical movements. This is especially true because physical movement, with the exception of reflexes, is by and large preceded by thought movement. It is an oddly redundant system. We don’t get up to go downstairs to make our coffee in the morning without thinking it first. Movement of thought, therefore, is just as important, if not more important than movement of action because it almost always happens first and frequently happens independently of physical action.
When we are being tested and encounter Great Tests, moving our thinking is imperative. Such movement is powerful in that it almost always breaks toxic patterns, clarifies progress, illuminates direction, and advances healing and restoration just as directly as moving forward on a path to safer ground would.
When we get stuck in an idea or line of thinking, it can be just as dangerous as being in quicksand. The best way to counter such idiosyncratic thought is through is through moving away from it by unraveling it. The most common way to do that is through exposure to alternative thoughts. The question of, “why me?” can be countered with, “why not, me?” which is the definitive alternative thought that helped move me towards acceptance of and ability to endure the Great Tests I have lived through. Moving my thoughts in this way helped me to progress until I was on the other, softer, more hospitable side of things. Knowing that any bad that had befallen me wasn’t an indictment for bad behavior or a a punishment, but the workings of a sometimes incomprehensible universe that doles these things out sometimes seemingly at random, helped me to conquer them. You don’t have to have thought this exact thought or even a similar thought to use this advice for your wellbeing. Whatever limiting or debilitating thought you are stuck on in your Great Test, if you can identify it, work towards changing it.
Anyone who believes in the attractive nature of thought, knows how dangerous a thought that keeps sticking can be. Probably the most common one is, “I can’t.” As Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” He knew this simple truth that consciously redirecting thought, moving our thoughts and sometimes ourselves, is the easiest way to pass A Great Test.