Hardships needn’t harden the heart. A lesson from Cambodia.
I’ve just returned from two weeks travelling through Vietnam and Cambodia (with Intrepid Travel) with my family (Click here for my favorite travel snaps). In between lots of wonderful family fun and adventurous ‘firsts’ (“Crispy fried crickets anyone?”), I had many experiences that reminded me of the resilience of the human spirit and how much I have to be grateful for.
While in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, I visited the infamous S21 – one of many barbaric ‘torture centers’ set up by Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge Regime. Afterward I travelled to the notorious Killing Fields, where tens of thousands of people, having been starved and tortured, were beaten with clubs (to save bullets), then thrown into ditches, sprinkled with DDT and then covered with dirt. The stronger among them often survived the clubbing and were still alive as they were thrown into their mass grave, and died with their hands tied behind their backs, acid eating their skin and dirt being piled above them.
Only seven people ever survived S21. I had the honor of meeting one of them – Chum Mey. While his wife and four children were executed, he was spared because he could repair the typewriters the Khmer Rouge relied on to document their barbaric acts.
Of course everyone in Cambodia has a story to share from that brutal chapter of Cambodian history. Likewise many of those I met in Vietnam also had heart-wrenching stories of hardship during their long years at war, regardless of which side they were on.
Yet despite the tales of extraordinary suffering, everywhere I went I was greeted with warm smiles (none warmer than from this Buddhist nun in a temple at Angkor Wot). It was a powerful reminder that while life can sometimes hold hardships beyond anything we can imagine, it doesn’t have to harden our hearts, nor leave us living our lives filled with resentment, anger or revenge.
While no-one I know has ever had relatives executed or brutally tortured, few people I know have escaped loss, hardship or heartache. The truth is that wherever we live, life will bring its fair share of struggle, sorrow and setbacks. As I was reminded time and time again in recent weeks, while our adversities can shape our lives, they don’t have to define them. Rather we have to make a conscious choice how we will respond to life when it fails to conform to our plans, our hopes and our expectations.
Sometimes plans fall apart. Sometimes we find ourselves in crisis we could never have predicted, much less prepared for. Sometimes people let us down, betray trust and act hurtfully. Sometimes those we love get sick or injured. Inevitably people we love l grow old, and eventually people we love will die. So too, shall we. While it may seem a harsh reality for some, the truth is that only when we accept life’s harsher realities, can we rise above them, rather than drown in despair, anxiety, or a sense of victimhood.
It’s a choice: To let our hardships define us and leave us hard and bitter. Or to lean into them and extract the deeper lessons they have to offer. In choosing the latter we can ultimately come to discover new dimensions of ourselves, to become more grateful for our blessings, and to experience life more deeply, more fully – the good, the bad and the heart wrenchingly tragic.
As I’ve slowly, uncomfortably, often ungraciously learnt to embrace struggle and sorrow in my own life (am still learning!), I’ve also learnt that we human beings are far more resilient than we estimate ourselves to be. I’ve also come to realize more and more that it’s only when we open our arms, minds and hearts to the full spectrum of human experience, that we can we tap into our innate reserves of resilience, courage and strength most fully.
As I wrote in Stop Playing Safe, “Adversity has a way of introducing us to our better selves. If we’re open to it.” Whatever challenges you have in your life right now, each of them offer an opportunity for you to learn, and grow, and come to know yourself more fully.
After all, life doesn’t happen to you; it happens for you.
I’d love for you to share below your experience of overcoming adversity, how it challenged you, and how it helped shape you to the person you are today. Who knows, your words may be the glimmer of hope needed for someone who is yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel.