In 1880, Thomas Edison patented the first commercial light bulb. Building on the work of earlier inventors, he perfected the phenomenon known as incandescence–or, as we think of it, the shine of a light bulb! The secret lay in the electrical resistance created by carbon filaments. Edison found that the greater the resistance, the brighter and longer lasting the luminescence would be. In other words, the obstacle (or resistance) wasn’t an impediment, it was “the way”!
This is an important spiritual idea as well. As my husband Michael shared in a recent Spiritually Hungry Podcast: “What is happening outside of my plan will inevitably be better for me than anything I might have planned for myself!” Thinking this way requires certainty in the Creator’s wisdom. It challenges us to let go of fear and to trust that whatever seeming obstacles are put before us are exactly what we need for our growth right now.
And this idea is proven in our lives, even from birth. From within the barriers that sustained us, we are born into the open air. Soon after this, we crack the language barrier (because don’t we all sound like we’re speaking gibberish to a newborn?). But no matter where a baby is born in the world, he or she will decipher the code and create meaning out of arbitrary sounds. It’s as though we were born to turn obstacles into our greatest accomplishments!
Sometimes we forget this and see challenges as enemies to vanquish, rather than as the vehicles for transformation that they are. I remember when, in earlier years, I faced intense ostracism, scrutiny, and judgment from others. I was told I wasn’t smart. I was told I should make myself smaller so that others could feel bigger. I was told I didn’t have what it takes to become a strong enough speaker to face–let alone move–an audience. Eventually, I grew tired of living my life consumed by what others thought of me and exhausted from trying to please them. Eventually, every time a naysayer threw me an insult, I held it to the mirror and decided for myself how I wanted to be defined. Did the smear contain a grain of truth? Well, then I could grow from that. Or (more likely) was it a result of someone else’s feelings of smallness, competitiveness, or jealousy? Though painful, those arrows were instruments of my self-discovery. Instead of holding me back, these “obstacles” were the propellers that moved me forward! And I am grateful for having had the opportunity to step up and create great change in myself as a result.
Moving, or even crushing, those perceived barriers may seem like the way–but true self-empowerment comes when we, like the light bulb, learn to harness the resistance. Harnessing those challenges and twists that life puts in our path demands us to drive our own lives. Dr. Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind, credits his own success as a doctor and researcher in great part to having failed a section of the National Boards. The “failure” led him to understand the power of hope–which he sees as the main ingredient for overcoming adversity. “Defeat does not come from failing, but from giving up,” he noted. And this is true in almost any area of life. Failed relationships can be mirrors for recognizing negative patterns in our own behaviors (or in our choice of partners). Illnesses can deepen our insight and our appreciation for life.
In Hebrew, the word for “challenges and tests” is the same as the word for “elevation.” Often, those challenges also contain something of the unknown which, as Kabbalah teaches, holds more blessings than the known. So when something is difficult and challenging, be on the lookout for the blessings! Who would Odysseus have been without the many unexpected obstacles he faced upon that vast sea? And speaking of “odysseys,” let’s talk about my own illogical (but oh so real!) fear of elevators. Guess how I overcame that debilitating terror? First, I decided this was a fear I was no longer willing to carry around with me… and then–you guessed it–I rode more elevators. (Okay, I admit that moving from LA to New York City sort of “encouraged” this shift, but still, it happened!). The only way through the obstacle was to hop onto it and elevate myself, literally!
Which brings me back to Thomas Edison. At the seasoned age of 67, Edison’s entire lab burned down–and with it years of records, prototypes, experiments, and research. After the initial shock, Edison mused that he’d cleaned out “a lot of rubbish” and re-saw the loss as a chance to rebuild a new and improved lab. Within a year, his revived efforts made over $10 million in profits! This time, Edison illustrated another element of harnessing the power of the obstacle: a positive, optimistic, and hopeful mind.
Today, I encourage you to resee life’s veers and challenges as your most immediate and important springboards for growth. Start by practicing what science calls “mind hygiene” by consciously removing any limiting thoughts. Banish the negative self-talk, the gossip, and the doomsday catastrophizing. And then ask yourself: How can I leverage my next obstacle to reveal the hidden blessing?
As Marcus Aurelius once said, “What stands in the way becomes the way.” Because sometimes, if we are to shine our brightest, resistance is exactly what we need most.