Two African-American sisters, Sadie and Bessie Delaney, were born in the southern United States at the end of the nineteenth century.
Growing up, the sisters experienced great pain because of deep-rooted discrimination against people of African descent. They often shook with anger at the treatment they received. But they refused to be defeated, learning to laugh off discrimination and encouraging each other not to despair. The sisters determined: If society isn’t going to accept us when we have the same ability as white people, then we’re just going to have to become even more capable. They drew strength from their father, who used to say, “Don’t ever give up. Remember, they can segregate you, but they can’t control your mind. Your mind’s still yours.” Through tireless effort, they gained places to study at Columbia University.
Sadie, the elder sister, became the first African-American to teach domestic science at High School level in New York City. Bessie, meanwhile, was only the second African-American woman licensed to practice dentistry there. They were not defeated by discrimination, poverty or criticism. They knocked back obstacles with the attitude, “What! Is that all?”
Bessie summed up her attitude, saying, “However you do it, you’ve just got to fight in this life . . . If there’s one thing you’ve got to hold on to, it’s the courage to fight!” Both sisters outlived their detractors, living to over 100 years old with a deep sense of achievement.
Many people think that it is only those born into fortunate circumstances who can succeed in life. Such people often feel that they, too, could have been successful, if only they had been blessed with this or that, or if only they weren’t hampered by the problems that trouble them now.
When I was young, I had a friend who excelled at everything and whom everyone admired. But recently I heard that he had ended up very unhappy, beset by illness and family problems. How could this happen to someone who had seemed so lucky in his youth? Maybe it was because, having been pampered from an early age, he never learned what hard work was, nor what it meant to struggle to achieve something. Thinking that everything he needed would fall into his lap, he probably avoided making strenuous efforts and was therefore unable to withstand the waves of difficulties which hit him later in life.
As long as we are alive we cannot be free of difficulties nor spared from problems. The question is how to overcome and resolve them. And there is only one answer: to confront and challenge life’s trials head on. In doing so, we can actually change them into sources of joy. Hardship builds character. I firmly believe that one can never become a person of extraordinary character just by leading an ordinary and peaceful life and avoiding difficulties.
Life involves scaling one mountain, then the next, then the one after that. The person who keeps on going, one step at a time, and finally conquers the highest mountain, will have a real sense of victory in life. But someone who avoids challenges and takes the easy route instead, will gradually descend into the valleys and feel no such sense of satisfaction.
Such a person, when faced with a problem, tends to think, “I know I should take action, but it will be very difficult.” When it is time to act, this kind of person tends to turn away. Someone who perseveres will rise to the challenge, however, determining, “It will be very difficult, but I must take action.”
A dear friend who faced every challenge in her life was Mrs. Fang Zhaoling, a painter and calligrapher based in Hong Kong who passed away in 2006 at the age of 92. She grew up during great political instability in China and her father was gunned down before her when she was eleven years old. But her mother was determined not to let this tragedy stand in the way of her daughter’s education, and Mrs. Fang studied hard, also learning to paint.
She married young and bore eight children. Then tragedy struck again when she was 36. Her husband died, leaving her to bring up the children—aged between 3 and 11—alone. Mrs. Fang then ran a small trading company and somehow managed to support and raise her children and provide each of them with a good education. She said, “Experiencing the hardship of being widowed at a young age is perhaps what gave me the strength to go on to study and develop my skill as an artist.”
Her life was evidence that overcoming challenges, triumphing over adversity is what life is all about. Her paintings often show steep cliffs and forbidding crags, but often one can make out a path or road through the rocks. Even in her eighties, Mrs. Fang was always active, always moving forwards. Her life shone like a jewel, forged and polished by hardship. A diamond, the king of jewels, is the hardest and brightest of minerals. Just as diamonds crystallize when carbon buried deep underground is subjected to extremely high pressure and temperatures, so, when we forge our lives under the intense pressure of difficulties and in the severe heat of hardship, we can develop a beautiful and strong sense of self.
Often the biggest obstacle in meeting life’s challenges is actually our own fear of failure. But it is not failure that we should fear. The only real failure comes when we allow our fear to prevent us from taking on new and unknown challenges.
Just about every important figure in history has in fact lived a life marked by one mishap after another. But these individuals rose up again after every setback, prodded on by a spirit that refuses to concede defeat and relishes challenge, to eventually crown their lives with victory.
Even if you have problems, even if you have done things you regret, or have made mistakes, your whole future still lies ahead of you. If you can just keep moving forward, telling yourself, “I’ll start from today,” “I’ll start afresh from now, from this moment,” then a whole new world of possibilities will open up before you.