Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Obstacle Course of Life

What is more important: How we overcome obstacles? Or, that we overcome obstacles?

The latter seems definitely important, for without overcoming the obstacles in our way we could not continue on with our lives for long. Indeed, one of the earliest obstacles we face is that of birth. Then comes the obstacles of nourishment, love, shelter, and safety. In order to live we must struggle sometimes. Overcoming these struggles is a great deal of what life is all about; and what stories are all about.

However, in the outcome of some obstacles it is not so much important that we succeeded as it is that we tried our best. A fantastic creative writing teacher of mine used a simple aphorism to express this notion: "If I failed, did I try my best?" Makes you think, huh?

For example, I think we can all agree that starting a story and failing to either finish it or get it published is not necessarily a failure. Yes, we may have failed in completing the task we set out for and we may have failed in our ultimate goal of sharing our writing with the world, but if we gave it our best, really tried, and, thus, likely learned a great deal, than these failures pale in comparison to what we probably achieved – whether we consciously feel we achieved anything or not.

The stories of literature and of life are full of such examples. Atticus Finch failed to save Boo Radley’s life, but we know he tried his best; and though we may feel saddened, we also may feel strangely uplifted. Martin Luther King Jr. failed to end segregation and racial injustice in America, but we know he died trying; and though we may feel sad even outraged, we may also feel a great sense of admiration and inspiration. On and on through history and in the present we can recall and find stories of struggles fought but never won; and we can see in those stories that overcoming the struggle was not ultimately nor historically what was important, what was was that the struggle was courageously undertaken.

Overcoming obstacles is wonderful and worthy of pride and admiration. But these achievements last only so long before the waves of change, of life, bring new obstacles to overcome. Though the more experienced will be better suited to face further obstacles than those not so, this does not mean they are invulnerable to the struggles of life. As long as we are human, our health is threatened, our loved ones are at risk, and that we will have a home tomorrow is never certain. Our lives are what are constantly at stake in life. Yet we are evolved enough, at least many of us are, to accept this reality with a certain serenity and grace, a shared dignity to the extent that we don’t constantly act like wild beats who are always fighting for our lives – even though we are.

Nature designed us to face the obstacle course of life, and usually even rewards us when we succeed. How we proceed – whether we try our best and fail or barely try yet still prevail – is what colors and shapes the fabric of our lives; that the fabric merely exists is not as important to us as how it is designed. The struggles faced by the characters in stories and in history are the enactments of the struggles we all still face today. How they proceeded is what makes their stories great or not. The color or shape of these many struggles may change with the times, but the fabric, the reality that the obstacle course exists, always remains.

So what is more important: That we overcome obstacles? Or how we overcome obstacles? Perhaps neither is more important. Perhaps what is important is that, like the characters of the stories we love and write, we courageously face the obstacles life places in our way, that we learn and grow through them to be better suited to face more challenges, that if we fall down we struggle to get back up or help another to get back up. But perhaps what is the most important is that we try, that we try our best to continue to tread through the obstacles of life.


  1. I agree with you. It's not important that we overcome obstacles or even how we overcome them if we do. It's important that we face them; that we try; that we grow and learn; that we give it our best. Well said.

  2. Thanks,Quinn! And thanks for reading!