Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Blessing of Hardship

Hardship survived is the most precious thing I own.

In my twenties I lived in a dormitory on a university campus in southern France. The place looked and sounded like a penal institution, the vitality of five hundred young men clanging through cavernous bare bulb corridors, a single phone and two washing machines serving all of us.

In winter the rooms were a steady ten degrees Celsius, except for an eight-day stretch in January, when we had no heat or hot water at all. The bathroom was frigid at all times; one of the windows was permanently open to the bitter Mistral, to evacuate steam.

There were no seats on the toilets.

The meals, which consisted of raw hamburger, rotten vegetables, and other challenging fare, poisoned me on several occasions. But not on weekends; then, we weren't
fed at all. To bridge the gap, each floor was provided with a single hotplate, for which we all competed. Its adjustment knobs were long gone. Everything in Bâtiment C was old, spare, hard, and broken.

Except for us: students from every clime on Earth, and our French brothers, whose insolence and ingenuity helped us survive. It was living hard, and it has made the living since a lot easier.

Today, when circumstances get rough, I ask myself if it's worse than Bâtiment C. It seldom is, and so I am satisfied. The fact is, I was an impatient and impolitic young man, and I was living in country, if not conditions, I adored. The campus was on the edge of a vast, empty Provençal wilderness, and I spent hours -- whole days -- in it, beneath an endless sky, above a timeless sea. So fortunate I knew it, in hallowed moments.

Even Bâtiment C wasn't so villainous, to the old forest monk I've become. Had I been practicing Zen, I might have found the mordant beauty even of that garlic-scented gulag.

Living without puts the mindfulness back in living with. We need to do both. Often.

(Text adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Interior view of corridor in Bâtiment C courtesy of Capharnaüm’s; exterior photos of Bâtiment C and Mont Puget courtesy of nice_done, Leipold, and Panoramio.)
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