Suffering: Becoming a Champion

It’s strange to say this; it is counter-intuitive. But I often now get asked: how did you cope with your illness? The assumption is always, how did you cope because it must have been awful? And in one very true sense, this is correct: having had two major operations for bowel cancer and just survived them is awful. Yet, I have to correct people too: bizarrely, in another sense, it has been wonderful!

Of course, I am not wishing for my illness to return – far from it – and keep me as far from a hospital and doctors and nurses as it’s humanly possible to be. But I begin to see – to experience – the truth of that cliché about what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Or that we thrive in adversity. Or even more particularly, that somehow pain and suffering are at the root of becoming a great person – if we respond appropriately.

It comes back to the simple idea that when everything is going well it is easy to be a marvellous person. Why wouldn’t you? If you won every game you played, achieved every goal you set yourself, succeeded in every task and accomplishment that you encountered along life’s way, then why wouldn’t you have a perfect character and smile and be charming all the time? Yes, you might.

To be, however, a great champion in any field, then you must face giants of opposition, titans of antagonism, and real perils and risks.

One talks, for example, of Muhammad Ali being the greatest boxing champion of all time. Why, because he won the World title three times? Hardly, another may do that. No, because he beat other, real champions; because he faced men like Joe Frazier and George Foreman who were awesome opponents, and who, arguably, in any other age would have completely dominated that sport, but for the presence of Ali. The greatness of Ali was demonstrated in the size and power of the obstacles in front of him.

And to switch sports: Lance Armstrong did something similar in cycling, only here his most lethal opponent was cancer itself, which his brilliant book, It’s Not about the Bike, chronicles. We see side by side here the pain of the cancer and the pain of the training, and the overarching objective of one human being not to become a victim of circumstances.

Thus, the strangest thing emerges when we think about it: no-one likes pain and suffering, and many people want to blame God for it. But at some deep level pain and suffering do provide some sort of character-therapy for people that enables them to endure with triumph dreadful circumstances, and in some cases achieve remarkable victories against the odds, and against the conventional wisdom of what should prevail.

For myself, as I said before, I certainly do not want cancer back, and I am working to prevent that happening so far as that lies within my power. At the same time, I can see that the suffering I went through had some tremendous benefits: how I value every minute now, how I treasure my family and friends at an even deeper level now, and how I see the whole universe shot through with the spirit of love that is not attenuated or diminished merely by pain – but through that pain can draw one ever closer to the source – and that is to be a Champion.

Article by James Sale

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James Sale is Europe’s premier expert on motivation. If you would like to book him as a speaker, contact:

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