The Enduring Value of Life’s Crucibles

“’How do you know when the gold is purified?’ we asked him, and he answered, ‘When I can see my face in it [the liquid gold in the crucible] then it is pure.’”

Gold Cord, Amy Carmichael

Marital counselling guru David Schnarch uses the word “crucible” to describe those periods during which couples learn they can’t have their cake and eat it, too, that is, that they can’t expect to hold on to the benefits of long-term commitment while pursuing whatever their little hearts desire.  In the crucible they experience intense, painful conflict that either destroys the marriage or strengthens it.

Marriage isn’t the only circumstance in which the cake dilemma knocks us out of our comfort zones.  University study represents a kind of self-imposed crucible: We set aside several years devoted to getting an education, and the success of the initiative depends, in part, on how much we’re willing to postpone gratification and accept hardship.

There are many other examples.  Just think of how you approach those forks in your life’s road, those times when you’re required to give up something you love to gain something you desire.

This sort of life experience is a crucible.  It’s a period in which your character is heated up for the purpose of refining, just as metal is heated to the melting point to remove impurities.  Whether or not you emerge from your personal crucible a better person depends on whether you’re open to the refining process.

One thing that strikes me again and again in the biographies of influential people is how their major life choices are so often launched by a single undesired event that steers them away from mediocre (and sometimes unfortunate) lives.  It always takes some kind of intense and lasting difficulty to get them off the road of the ordinary long enough to bless the world with their art, ideas, or actions.  This event is nearly always painful and difficult, as is the process of moving from an ordinary life to a remarkable one.  But in retrospect this dreaded hardship often turns out to be a big blessing in disguise.  Apparently, it takes a crucible to raise a notable adult.

Even non-famous people will credit hard times with teaching them the value of frugality, human connections, health, simple pleasures, meaningful pursuits, and even life itself.  At the same time, you probably know at least one person whose life appears safe and comfortable but who’s always griping about trifles.  A good week or two in a crucible might just turn that grouch around.

As unpleasant as they may be, we needn’t make those crucible periods worse by assuming that they’ve arrived as divine punishment or by fighting to get out of them.  Many addictions and bad relationships have been launched in attempts to escape the crucible; better to live through the pain than to get away by entering the service of an abusive partner or drug dependency.

It’s not easy, but if you look for the humour in your situation your load will lighten like magic.  And how much more meaningful life becomes when we can learn to say, “Yes, this is really hard, and I want it to be over, but because I know good things can come of it, I’m going to relax and learn whatever life is trying to teach me.”

It’s not just about us.  As hard as it may be to go through hard times ourselves, it can be even harder to watch our loved ones go through them, especially when there’s little or nothing we can do to help.  But instead of trying to rescue them or “fix it” for them we can have the courage to simply walk through their fire with them, seeing the potential of their suffering to enrich their lives in surprising ways.

The next time life places you or someone you care about in a crucible, take a deep breath, relax, and get ready for a course in the school of hard knocks.  The more ready you are to learn, the better your outcome will be.

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