“Please have a safe trip. . . ”
                       “Be careful as you travel. . .”
                              “Come back in one piece. . .”

How often have you heard these words from friends and family as you’re embarking on a journey? Obviously, they’re concerned about your health and safety. Your safe return is a high priority to them—and no doubt to you as well.
However, we understand that no journey is guaranteed for safety. The road of life is filled with struggles and stresses.
Realistically, life could be thought of as “The Hardship Highway.” Cars wreck, trains derail, and airplanes crash. Accidents occur and injuries are sustained. Additionally, illnesses develop and lives may be disrupted or destroyed.  People hurt and people die. Emotional pain may cause intense personal suffering that threatens optimism and hope. Human mistakes make messes, and our messes bring misery. Through these harsh experiences we grasp the reality of life’s journey:  suffering is indeed a part of the trip. For some folks the extent of the suffering seems small; for most people, however, the suffering is significant. Maybe there should be a huge warning sign as we begin our journey through life:  “Warning! Hazardous Road! Travel at your own Risk beyond this Point!”

During my thirty years as a professional therapist I’ve seen heart-wrenching and life-changing hardships, both within individuals and within families. Clients have struggled personally with physical, emotional, and mental health problems. Couples have suffered from relationship stress ranging from unresolved conflicts to separation and divorce. Families are strained and stressed from a myriad of issues as they try to adapt to losses and changes that occur during the family life cycle.
The heavy, dark clouds over life’s highway seem ominous and overwhelming. The hardship with which we travel may be more than we want to have or more than we think is fair. In response we could repeat the old saying, “Into every life some rain must fall.” But you might identify with the person who added, “Yeah, but in my life ‘when it rains, it pours!’” An unidentified person philosophized, “Flowers never bloom where the sun is always shining; that’s what makes deserts.” Flowers notwithstanding, the presence of hardships is indeed a challenge to our inner peace and our ultimate survival as we travel the highway of life.
Many of us view the suffering we sustain from hardships as our #1 enemy, unless the reality of facing our death is given the top ranking. I recall hearing one gentleman remark, “I don’t mind dying; I just don’t want to suffer.” What about you? Where do you rank hardship in terms of life’s challenges? What role has hardship played thus far in your own life journey? How do you usually react to hardship? How much do you suffer from your hardship? Does everyone suffer to the same extent? What determines how much we suffer? Can we suffer less if we so choose? What can we do to cope more effectively with hardship and suffering? Does suffering ever have a positive component and can it therefore be valued or appreciated? Why do innocent people have hardship and good people suffer? Clearly, there seems to be no end to the questions that confront and confuse us.

Without a doubt these questions raise issues that challenge us on a very deep level. Frankly, I’m challenged on a daily basis as I work with therapy clients on issues that involve hardship and suffering. Understandably, these clients are asking for answers; they are searching for solutions. Basically, they’re looking for a roadmap. For us to travel safely on a literal journey we need a good roadmap and, additionally, we must understand and follow the rules of the road.  However, most people appear to be confused and perhaps lost as they try to manage “the hardship highway,” as if they don’t have a roadmap to follow. Furthermore, they do not understand or else they ignore basic “rules of the road” and, unfortunately, they bring upon themselves additional and unnecessary hardship and suffering. 
In our search for a workable roadmap we consult family members and friends. We interview people who have “been there” to inquire about their “secrets” for survival. We search the Internet and read books and articles on the subject of suffering. We enter personal therapy to obtain professional assistance. We consider spiritual aspects of suffering, and we study our Bible and listen to spiritual leaders in our churches. Through these efforts we hope to discover or develop a personal roadmap that will help us navigate safely in our journey through life. This roadmap helps us understand the “rules of the road” (that is, “what to do” and “what not to do”) so that our travel experience will be satisfying and successful.

Like other people I’ve struggled personally over the years with these issues regarding hardship and suffering. And, like other people, I need a roadmap. Many people have suffered much more than I have; perhaps I’ve suffered more than some others. Regardless of the comparisons that could be made, my own emotional and physical suffering has challenged me to develop and follow a workable roadmap. My personal roadmap consists of my beliefs and attitudes about hardship and suffering, and it contains tips and tools for effective survival. The material contained in this article presents some of the components of my own roadmap. I share the material with the sincere hope that it will encourage you in your own roadmap development. 
Considering causes. . .

My personal roadmap begins with an understanding of the causes of hardships and suffering. Some hardship occurs through chance—circumstances outside of human control. Through chance we are hit with hurricanes, tornados and floods; through chance we are hammered with losses, illnesses, and death.   However, most hardships happen because of human choice and human error. Through our choices we make mistakes, our mistakes make messes, and our messes make misery. At times I cause my own hardship and suffering; at other times I am simply the victim of a cruel and chaotic world. The issue of cause involves elements of responsibility, accountability, and fairness; these elements in turn affect our emotions (anger, guilt, fear, self-depreciation, etc.). My conclusions about “why I have hardship” will impact and influence my degree of personal suffering.   

Creating competencies. . .

After I consider the causes of my hardship and suffering I develop my roadmap more fully by creating competencies. Even though we cannot predict what hardships may be encountered in our journey through life, we can make efforts to become more competent to face and manage the hardships that do occur. Preparation for “the hardship highway” becomes a high priority. Before we embark on an extended automobile trip do we not prepare our car for the journey? Of course we do! We get the car serviced, check all the hoses, air up the tires, fill up the gas tank, put in the emergency equipment, sign up for AAA road service, and make sure that our car insurance is current. In a similar way we need to prepare ourselves for hardships by becoming competent travelers along the highway of life. Our competency involves at least four key efforts. I think of these efforts as the “Four R’s.”
(1)  The first “R” stands for REALITY, a concept that deals with my beliefs about life. What do I believe? I believe that hardship and suffering will accompany me during my travels through life. I believe that I am not immune to nor protected from suffering. The issue is not “if I suffer” but rather “when I suffer.” Suffering is a part of life. Therefore, I accept hardship and suffering as an expected part of my life journey.
(2)  The second “R” stands for RESOLUTION, a concept that deals with my determination about life. I resolve to face suffering with courage and to endure it with patience. I resolve that I will choose to become better rather than bitter as I struggle with my suffering. I resolve to learn all that I can from my experiences and will use the knowledge I gain to equip me more fully for my continuing journey. 
(3)  The third “R” stands for READINESS, a concept that deals with my survival in life. Since the reality of suffering is predictable, and since I am determined to survive, I therefore need to “get ready” and “stay ready.” This state of readiness is essential to effective survival. I will practice readiness in at least five key areas.
  •    Physical health (staying in the best physical shape I can)
  •    Support system (cultivating and using a strong personal support network)
  •    Financial stability (maintaining enough savings to see me through the hardship)
  •    Personal skills (using vital skills for healthy thinking, effective relaxation, consistent self-control, and appropriate flexibility)
  •    Spiritual faith (practicing my personal theology of suffering)

(4)  The fourth “R” stands for RULES, a concept that deals with my behavior in life. As I react to the hardship I’m experiencing at the current time, I remember that safe travel requires that I follow the “rules of the road” that are designed to help me travel successfully. If I violate these rules, I will hinder my survival and increase my suffering. Let’s look briefly at several of these rules.
*Speed limits (I will pace myself through the hardship, trying not to go too fast or too slowly. Proper pacing will allow me to take care of myself and will help me to problem-solve for workable solutions necessary to my safe travel.)
*Stay on the road (I’ll try to stay on course based upon the recommended plan of action. I’ll follow my physician’s orders regarding medication and treatment. I’ll try to do what professionals suggest regarding my situation.)
*Respect other drivers (Even though I’m suffering I will not permit myself to mistreat other people around me with inappropriate behavior or with harsh and hypercritical words. I will not abuse my caregivers, but instead I will show gratitude and respect.)
*Don’t drive under the influence (I will not complicate my hardship and hinder my survival by abusing alcohol and drugs. I will resist the temptation to misuse them as a form of escape, avoidance, or coping.)
*Use your signals (My caregivers cannot read my mind. If I decide to make changes or if I need something, I’ll “signal” and communicate clearly what is happening.)
*Lights on when dark (I will use my personal spiritual faith to illuminate my path during the dark hours of hardship. My faith will provide guidance to keep me on the right course.)
*Check your car regularly (I will listen to my body and will be alert to changes, especially to stress-related symptoms triggered by the hardship and suffering. I will attend to my body in an appropriate, self-caring manner in order to safeguard my personal health as much as possible.)
*Use emergency resources (I’ll call my emergency responders if I get to the point of a “breakdown” or a “crash.” I will use my personal support system assertively and effectively.)
*Yield right-of-way (I will remember that I’m not the only “car on the road.” Other travelers have hardship and suffering. They need and deserve attention and assistance. I will be patient when I have to wait while other sufferers are helped. I will share my resources with them as much as I can so that their burden will be lessened.)
*Practice damage control (I will do my best to refrain from any actions that will make my situation worse. I may not know what the best solutions are for “fixing my problem,” but I can choose not to do those things that will aggravate and worsen my current status.) 
Challenging character. . .

Additionally, my personal roadmap stimulates and nurtures character development. Without a doubt hardship challenges our character. When we suffer we learn a great deal about who we really are. Our basic motivations and values become more evident to us—and to people around us. The way we suffer with hardship has a profound impact upon the direction our character will develop. Essentially, we determine that direction based upon the choices we make in the midst of our suffering. Simply said, we choose to become bitter—or better.
The choice of bitterness invites a long and difficult road for us to travel. We interpret the causes of our hardship as unfair and unjust, and we become angry and resentful. We add disappointment and discouragement to the equation. We develop a negative outlook on both the past and the future. We take on a “victim complex” and believe that we are being mistreated.  As “victims” we excuse and justify ourselves when we behave inappropriately toward others. Our resentful attitude makes us difficult to get along with by people around us. Our relationships suffer, and we may lose friends and even relatives who grow weary of our negativism. The bitterness highway is a hard road indeed to travel!
The choice of “betterness” invites growth and maturation along our highway of life. In the midst of our suffering we work hard to manage our attitudes and behaviors. We understand and follow the “rules of the road” described earlier. Our suffering produces patience which in turn produces character. Character means wisdom. Our best growth came from hardships we experienced during the “valleys” of life, not from the easy times we had during the “mountaintops” of life. This maturation process is life-long in nature, and our hardships and suffering are integral components of that process. Sometimes I can really identify with the title of one of Jess Lair’s books,I Ain’t Well—but I Sure Am Better.
Concluding thoughts. . .
As I close this article, I am reminded of a Peanuts cartoon I’ve long valued. Lucy gives Charlie Brown a severe tongue-lashing about something. She walks away smirking while Charlie Brown stands still with a dazed look on his face. Linus approaches with his blanket, looks at Charlie Brown, and says, “Charlie Brown, I hope she didn’t knock all the life out of you.”  Still dazed, Charlie Brown replies, “Well, no, but you can definitely number me now among the walking wounded.”  
Because of hardship and suffering all of us are “the walking wounded.” Getting wounded seems to go with our travels along the hardship highway. When (not “if”) we encounter hardships, how will we react? Will we determine to become “better” instead of “bitter”? I hope we will choose the better road. Life is rough enough as it is. Let's not make things worse. "Better" is the best highway to travel!
I wish you the best as you travel your own hardship highway.
And, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.

VIDEO:  To view a short video (television interview) in which Dr. Baker discusses this topic of "Suffering on the Hardship Highway," please click on the image to the right or just click here

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


​(Blog: MT #1502)

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