what is easy (and what is not)

I recently spent several days in the company of an 11 year old. This capable, brilliant, big hearted human has many gifts. He is remarkably relational, uber responsible, and deeply curious. He can engage just about anyone in an enjoyable conversation and makes nearly everyone he interacts with smile. He has a passion for presidents, is gifted musically, and can explain the dynamics of a group with amazing clarity. Puzzles, however, are a totally different animal. This kiddo, blessed with a million and one gifts, struggles with all things mathematical.

Not thinking, I grabbed a hand held manipulative puzzle game to play with him while we waited for dusk at the drive in movie theater. Starting with the most basic level, he struggled to complete it. I immediately realized my mistake and sweated, trying to help him accomplish the task with his sense of independence and competency intact. This was no easy task. I am attached to this person and could see the absolute cluelessness in his eyes as he tried to figure out how the lizards should leap to get to their lily pads. I could sense how confused and untethered he felt as he faced down a task that was not suited to his strengths. I squirmed. He kept at it, all the while saying “This is easy!” Anyone near by would have thought it should be...an 11 year old playing a puzzle game. He finished that first mission declaring, one final time, that the task had been “so easy” but I knew better. There was nothing easy about what he had just done. Nothing.

Isn’t it interesting how we comfort and challenge ourselves with the words, “This is easy”? We use the phrase to push ourselves along and motivate. We also use it to criticize our slow progress or halting successes. “This is easy dummy! Why can’t you get it done?” In other situations we use the phrase to announce to others how simple things are for us. “Oh, that was easy!” affirms our giftedness, abilities, and smarts. Finally, we employ it to ward off compliments that are difficult to receive or to express a sort of false humility. “Oh that little(huge) thing I pulled off? It was easy.”  In the context of our relationships, we use it to compliment and criticize interchangeably. “You’re so lucky that that is so easy for you.” and “What’s up with that imbecile? Seriously, that should be so easy.” both roll off our tongues. We swap disregard for acknowledgement and judgement for empathy. We assume that which is easy is good and that which is easy for us should be easy for others. We are so often so wrong.

Basically, the phrase itself is rarely accurate. When something is actually simple for us to accomplish, it is uncommon for us to announce it. When an architect designs a building they don’t do so out of ease. Instead, they have developed a set of skills and practiced them, making it relatively easy to accomplish at a basic level. They don’t decry, at the end of the process, the ease with which they completed the task. That is because it is never that simple. It just isn’t. 

The same can be true of all sorts of skills and all variety of people. We say, “This is easy,” however, most commonly when we need comfort, attention, or, bizarrely, motivation to persevere. We are sweating at a task and don’t want anyone to notice so our words say “This is easy” to distract from our struggle. We feel unseen and as though our accomplishments don’t matter so we point them out by decrying the ease with which we accomplished them. Or, we feel incompetent to complete a task and spur ourselves on by telling ourselves that “This should be easy (idiot!). Keep going (stupid!). Even a moron could accomplish this silly little (absolutely impossible!) task.”

This phrase is so counterproductive. When we use it, we are often referring to something that could, in fact, contribute to our own feelings of competence, mastery, or satisfaction. In firing it off we shoot our own selves in the foot. If my dear 11 year old friend could have said, “This is totally and frustratingly hard! I am, however, keeping at it!” at the end, we could have celebrated his persistence and effort. Instead, since it was “so easy” there is nothing for which to collect affirmation or kudos. 

I believe that many of the most important actions required for living a healthy and engaged life are far from easy. I also believe that being honest about the challenges we take on has merit. “Personing up” to the things that are difficult for us has the potential of inviting entirely new levels of inspiration, connection, and support. When I am willing to express to a safe community that I am taking on a difficult (for me) challenge, I invite others to encourage me as well as to take on their own new pursuits. Yes, there is the risk that some might use this information against me, but the greater likelihood is that I will find partners for my journey and develop the internal ability to persist and be resilient. 

Persistence and resilience are twin traits that allow us to take on that which is not easy. When we are persistent we keep at the task, even when it is difficult, believing that there is a pay off for continued effort. Resilience determines our ability to handle difficulties and disappointments without experiencing undue levels of psychological distress (anxiety, depression, mania, etc). These two skills cannot be developed without struggle. They are not purchasable and can’t be “granted.” Without risking that which is not easy we simply don’t learn how to keep going in the face of obstacles. Neither do we magically inherit the ability to make sense of our successes or failures and all the states in between. This skill must be developed. We must “thicken our emotional skin” over time and repeated efforts to master things. We must find that which suits us and that which does not and discern those risks which will contribute to our being healthier humans with optimally complex lives.

Not only do we benefit from attempting the difficult, but there is much to be gained by acknowledging the “uneasy tasks” that those around us undertake. It may feel odd at first to speak into the life of another, but as a difficult task in it’s own rite this process can be a gift to both parties. “I imagine that this process/task might be very difficult. I think it’s amazing that you are undertaking it.” “I bet that this accomplishment was far from easy. Way to go persisting at it.” “I see how hard you are trying. Do you need help along the way?” are all ways of communicating that there is no need for false humility or unnecessary effort to make something look simple. They also acknowledge that the process is often as important as the outcome. 

Every one of us lives with complications and complexities. I’ve written it here before and will do so again. “Be kind to everyone, for their’s is a difficult journey.” Mine. Yours. That person over there’s. All of ours. Our journeys are difficult. The requirements: not easy. Given this, I propose a set of new go-to phrases for use in place of “This is easy.” These statements will encourage persistence, resilience, effort, and authentic connection potential. Jot them down somewhere where you’ll see them and then give them a whirl, knowing that you are telling the truth in the service of a healthier life and encouraging the same in others. 

In place of “This is easy!” how about try:

“This is not easy.”

“I could use some help.”

“I began something that I wasn’t ready for. I need to decide to lay it down or to persist. Which is better for me?”

“I wonder if you began something that you weren’t ready for. What would it cost you to lay it down? What would it cost you to persist? Which seems healthier for you?”

“If persisting at this makes sense, where might I find help.”

“Things that are difficult may be worth working at.”

“This being difficult for me does not make me stupid/incapable/less than/not enough.”

“I have many gifts. This is not one of them. That is o.k.”

“I can handle trying this, even if it is not simple and even if I do not succeed. My value and worth is intact.”

“Ease is not a static measure. What is easy for me is not easy for others. There is value in diversity and beautify in complex communities.”