When I was 19 years old, I found myself on a river in Florida with 12 other guys. We were canoeing 320 miles down into the Gulf of Mexico on a trip called Outward Bound.
We were a troubled bunch, kids who had lost their way. Some of us had rough relationships with our families, others simply struggled to cope with life’s challenges in healthy and productive ways. Our common bond was inferiority. We didn’t know where we “fit in.”
It was a 30-day trip. 30 days in the wilderness, secluded from society. 30 days of packing up the canoes at daybreak and spending 12 hours on the river. 30 days of unpacking the canoes at dusk, setting up camp, cooking rice and beans for dinner, and then sitting around the fire. 30 days of reflection.
The 7th day of the trip was the hardest. Once the shock of the trip had worn off and we’d grown used to the routine, we all began to realize just how distanced we all were — from our homes, our friends, our families, and in a sense, ourselves. We were far outside our comfort zones, and we all felt very, very uncomfortable.
Each one of us wanted to quit. We wondered how we would ever endure the entirety of the trip. We questioned our own ability, if we would make it to the end. 30 days seemed like an eternity.
As we sat around the fire that night, one member of our crew broke down. He needed to walk away and spend some time alone. Another, years of anger bubbling to the surface, did the same, and in the darkness we could hear him screaming at the world. The rest of us sat watching the flames of our homemade fire. Silent. Wondering when we too would crack.
When the collective came together again, one of our counselors began to tell a story.
She spoke of butterflies — and as rebellious teenagers, we all rolled our eyes.
She told us how butterflies begin as a caterpillar, and eventually find themselves in a cocoon. And in that cocoon, the butterfly is exposed to struggle — the greatest struggle of their life, in fact. In order to emerge from the cocoon, they must fight, and fight, and fight, until one day they burst through their own walls and become a butterfly.
“Well, this cocoon sucks,” one of the kids said, and we all laughed under our breath, agreed.
But she went on to tell us a story. How they did studies on butterflies, and the process they go through in order to emerge from the cocoon. And what they learned was that if they tried to help the butterfly, if they took a small razor blade to the cocoon and made the task easier for them, they emerged weak. So weak, in fact, they would die.
Sitting in our plastic buckets around the fire in the middle of the wilderness, we all edged closer, listening.
“You don’t want to avoid the struggle,” she said.
“You want to embrace the struggle. The struggle is what makes you. The struggle is what makes the butterfly.”
That moment and that story changed my life, and my perspective, forever.
In life, we all face our own challenges.
We are all, metaphorically speaking, wrapped in our own cocoons.
And as much as we would like someone to come along and help us out, that does not give us the strength to become the best version of ourselves.
In order to learn the tough lessons, and be able to hold your own out in the world, you have to embrace the struggle. You have to trust that what you are going through is there to teach you something.
And when you emerge, you will be better for it.
You have to love the struggle.