Last week CTV News did a segment with a Canadian doctor named Mike Evans, who started a Twitter campaign to encourage people to take the stairs, park farther away, sit less, and walk more.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about this advice. Telling people to “be more active” is about as new to us as the automobile. But the way he put it — “make your day harder” — is different from the usual message, because it hints that there is something about difficulty itself that should attract us.
What he didn’t quite say is that making your day harder in these ways won’t just make your life better, but easier. We all know it’s “better” to eat quinoa salad than hamburgers, and to take the stairs instead of the elevator, but that doesn’t necessarily convince us to change. “Better”, in the exercise-and-whole-grains sense, has always been on offer, but this better life often seems harder than the one we already have, and the last thing we want is to make life harder.
I think what most of us really want is an easier life, not necessarily a more wholesome one. We want less trouble and more enjoyment, probably more so than we want achievement and virtue. But what we often overlook is that embracing difficulty in certain places nets us a lot more ease than our usual “easy” ways. Putting in three hours a week at the gym is easier than being out of shape 24 hours a day. Studying is easier than sitting in an exam room not having studied. Doing a good job at work is easier than wondering when they’ll finally fire you.
I’m used to thinking of ease and difficulty as a pretty straightforward dichotomy: we want more of one and less of the other. And maybe in a sense that’s true, but they are often found in the same place and come together as a package. A small amount of difficulty often serves as the gatekeeper to a large amount of ease.
We end up with needlessly difficult lives because we have trouble recognizing ease when it’s hidden behind difficulty. It’s hard to see, for example, in that difficult moment when you’re about to walk into a gym for the first time, that you are taking the path of greater ease: if you get yourself through that short, difficult experience, your life quickly begins to lose a lot of difficulty. Beyond the gate, your health situation is easier, dating is easier, clothes shopping is easier, and so is virtually any physically demanding task you can think of, possibly for the rest of your life. All of this ease is bought for three hours a week, which themselves quickly (and permanently) become many times easier than they were the first time.
If you’re a long-time sufferer of shyness it is hard to see the long-lived ease you’re creating in the difficult moment when you speak up in spite of your normal tendency to keep quiet. Venturing into “difficult” territory, in that moment, brings ease to countless future experiences, including job interviews, first dates, presentations, family gatherings, and every situation in which it is possible to make a new contact or a new friend. This new ease lasts forever and compounds on itself. Fears tend to stay down once you walk over them once.
I have always understood that it was better to confront fears and difficult tasks, but I don’t know how make my heart want “better” more than it wants “easier.” Maybe you’re the same, and maybe that means we’re not very virtuous. But if ease is what you want, there is often a ton of it hidden just behind small bits of difficulty. A thing that seems difficult is often actually a densely-packed bundle of ease — perhaps even a lifetime supply of a certain small kind of it. Most of the hard part is the tough packaging. It’s the first part you have to deal with, but also the first part left behind.
In other words, we often get a bad deal when it comes to finding ease in life, because we tend to insist on having the ease up front, no matter how little of it there is.
It’s one thing to grasp this idea intellectually, but it’s another to actually see difficulty as something appealing, rather than something in the way of what’s appealing. Virtually anywhere you have a chance to willingly do something difficult, you have a chance to create more ease than you’ve been living with. I’m taking a post-secondary class for the first time in nine years, and at first I was intimidated by the thought of going back to school. But instead of using my old strategy of trying to manage my basic shyness by speaking out only when I have to, I’m grinding it down to nothing by speaking out more than I have to. Two weeks in, all jitters are gone and I feel like I can talk to anyone, on campus and off, more easily than it’s ever been for me. Dr Evans’s advice to make my day harder has made everything easier.
After a lifetime of dragging my feet around every instance of difficulty, I’m starting to see difficulty as “ease up for grabs”. The feeling of “Uh oh, that’s hard” is starting to become “Hey look — another way to make the rest of my life easier”.
There are, obviously, forms of difficulty that aren’t worth embracing, and which might not make it easier to do anything you value. Eating sawdust will make your sawdust-eating experiences easier for the rest of your days, but that alone doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. But when we complain about difficulty in our lives, we’re usually talking about the kinds that seem to stand between us and what we really want: more ease. Ease when it comes to our health, our relationships, our finances, our goals, and our day-to-day routines.
If things seem hard in any of these areas, maybe it’s because of how little difficulty we usually volunteer ourselves for. Technology has made it easier than ever to make our lives harder, by letting us bypass even the smallest instances of social and physical difficulty. Why call when you can email? Why cook when you can order in? Why walk when you can drive?
This habit of “taking the elevator” leaves us dependent and unprepared for inescapable difficulties when they do come, and cheats us out of a lot of long-term ease. Life is easier when you take the stairs.