You’re never guaranteed a reward equal to the amount of your suffering, but you can choose how you suffer.
In case you hadn’t heard, the Olympics just happened. As a former athlete, I had a lot of sympathy for the competitors, and I wondered what it was that motivated them to even try so damn hard. A lot of them are obviously in pain, few achieve their goals; and is the lifetime of regret for falling short of gold worth taking the chance at all? But, then again if they weren’t struggling at this one thing that they were really good at, they would for sure be struggling in one way or the other.
There is something about struggling that is just intrinsic to living. My roommate told me a story about watching a frigatebird in the Galapagos struggle to free itself from the mud, but it couldn’t take off because it’s wings were too weighed down to take flight. It was a pointless struggle; the bird wasn’t going to make it, and my roommate could do nothing to help it, as the general code on the Galapagos is to let nature take its course. Struggle is one of those circular consequences; we frigatebirs are alive because we’ve struggled against being otherwise, and because we are alive, we continue to struggle.
I was thinking about this bird the other day as I waited at the free dental clinic in Berkeley. If you’ve ever been to any kind of social services dispensary where people are waiting to get food stamps or unemployment checks or free health care, then you know what struggle is, and that suffering is perceptible, a natural gas that you give off when you burn through all your resources and some of your resiliency.
In the clinic, I sat in a white plastic chair next to a burly, freckled man who smelled of misfortune, probably because some circumstance or another prevented him from bathing regularly. I sat there for about thirty minutes, pretending to read my book, but really listening to the forty or so other potential patients complain about how the dental assistant took the lottery jar (which, no joke, looks like the Reaping Bowl from the Hunger Games) into a back room to select the “winners” instead of choosing the names in front of everyone. The dental assistant came back out moments later, announced the three lucky winners, one of which was the silent and smelly man to my left, and offered free toothbrushes to everyone else. The crowd quickly closed in on her with complaints about the drawing having something to do with racial profiling. I slipped out the door as quickly as possible.
As I walked home, I crossed a street with the same name as one of my ex-boyfriends, the one who I thought I was going to marry once upon a time. I felt a pang of remorse and wondered, not for the first time, if I would have been better off going with this guy, my ‘Plan A’ oh so many years ago. If I had married him, I probably wouldn’t be gambling for a chance to get my cracked molar fixed at a clinic across the country, a long ways away from where I met and fell in love with him.
I don’t have anything poignant to say about why we struggle, because I actually don’t think there is any good reason for it. You’re never guaranteed a reward equal to the amount of your suffering, but you can choose how you suffer. If I had ended up with that ex-boyfriend, there would have been other discomforts and uncertainties. I chose to struggle this way, and that is basically all you can ask for in the best of circumstances; to determine what your fight looks like.