To some extent, we all fear going through difficult times. We hope that our health never fails and our bank accounts are always full. Through these Stoic quotes on hard times, though, we tap into a strange reality of life: it is adversity, not prosperity, that allows us to grow and find meaning in life.
Studies have found that somewhere around 70% of people report that hard times catalyze positive psychological growth. This includes a greater appreciation for life and loved ones, a deeper sense of self and purpose, and an increased capacity for empathy and altruism.
While that's all well and good, it can be hard to see the light when you're actively suffering. Our ancient philosopher friends understood that bad things happen in life and that there is little you can do to control external events that impact you. The Stoics propose that, in the face of adversity, you stop trying to control the uncontrollable and focus on what you have the power to change-- namely, your mindset and actions. That's why these Stoic quotes on overcoming difficulty are so powerful.
“Misfortune is virtue’s opportunity.” – Seneca
“Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.” – Seneca
“The mind that is anxious about future events is miserable.” – Seneca
What if the hard times that are causing you pain haven't even happened yet? If we let ourselves, we can spend our entire lives fretting about future events, even if they never come to pass.
Mark Twain famously said, "I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened." What if you look back on your life when you're old, do you really want to see that you spend countless days anxious over things that never even occurred?
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”– Seneca
”You need not look about for the reward of a just deed; a just deed in itself offers a still greater return.” – Seneca
“It’s not that we have little time, but more that we waste a good deal of it.” – Seneca
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” – Seneca
No one wants to go through hard times, but the reality is that adversity can make you stronger, better, and more capable.
“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” – Seneca
“If you know not to which port you sail, no wind is favorable.” – Seneca
“A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope.” – Seneca
If you've had all of your dreams tied up on one outcome that doesn't pan out, it can be devastating. The next step isn't giving up, though, but pivoting, expanding, and diversifying your goals and hopes.
“You suffer more than necessary if you suffer before it is necessary.” – Seneca
“All cruelty springs from weakness.” – Seneca
“He who injured you was either stronger or weaker than you. If weaker, spare him; if stronger, spare yourself.” – Seneca
Sometimes, it's our fellow humans that create our hard times. Seneca offers some sound advice here. The person who is making your life hard is either doing so because of their weakness or their power. In either instance, you'll want to be very careful about how you react.
“...We are naturally disposed to admire more than anything else the man who shows fortitude in adversity.” – Seneca
“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” – Seneca
“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.” – Seneca
There is a fascinating connection between adversity and happiness. Though we all (understandably) hope that nothing bad ever happens to us, hardship is really the thing that allows us to find out who we really are and find meaning in our lives. If you want to be happy, living a life where you avoid all risks or potential difficulty likely won't get you there.
“What difference does it make, after all, what your position in life is if you dislike it yourself?” – Seneca
“Even if some obstacle comes on the scene, its appearance is only to be compared to that of clouds which drift in front of the sun without ever defeating its light.” – Seneca
“In the meantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.” – Seneca
It's easy to ride life like a rollercoaster, being exhilarated during the highs and destroyed by the lows. If you can zoom out and see the full flow of things, you can be more able to approach occurrences with a calm, steady, and ready mind.
“Constant misfortune brings this one blessing: to whom it always assails, it eventually fortifies.” – Seneca
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca
Seneca points to the strange reality of life here-- that the unluckiest people of all are those that glide through life without any difficulty. In this type of existence, a person is much less likely to become the best person they can be, as they were never tested.
“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” – Marcus Aurelius
“You have the power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
You can spend your whole life in distress if you are always just reacting to the things that occur and trying to control external events. One of the reasons that Stoicism seems to become popular during difficult times in society is because of the way it allows one to move forward in life with health and a sound mind. Understanding that you have control over your own mind and not much else can help you pour your energy into the most useful and productive direction.
“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius
Are you facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle? It might seem like all of your dreams are dashed by something that stands in your way, but in reality, it has just forged a new path.
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” – Marcus Aurelius
“Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.” – Marcus Aurelius
Sometimes things happen to you in life that make it feel like you just can't go on. Maybe someone close to you died or maybe you lost your job two weeks before you were supposed to close on a house. Hard times don't even have to be catastrophic to feel like hard times, though, and your own strength and character have a huge impact on how you react to difficulty.
It might seem impossible when you're deep in the despair of hard times, but you really can shift your perspective on just about any topic and see that the event can actually help you grow stronger and achieve your goals.
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” -Marcus Aurelius
The next time you find yourself pained by your life or the state of the world, do an experiment. Is it possible to see the good in what is happening? What would it mean for you to look at these difficulties in a positive light? If it's possible, you'll see exactly what the Stoics mean about the ability you have to control your mind.
“It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have…
Ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” – Marcus Aurelius
“To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.” – Marcus Aurelius
We might not be able to stop bad things from happening, but we can change who we are in the face of these difficulties. This image from Marcus Aurelius is a wonderful one to call up when you're suffering.
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” – Epictetus
“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.” – Epictetus
“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.” – Epictetus
Who do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish in life? Epictetus points to something very real here-- if you want to strive to be the best person possible, you'll have to face a lot of storms.
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.” – Epictetus
“Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.” – Epictetus
In some instances, hard times are obvious. Maybe you've fallen into financial ruin and had to file for bankruptcy, or maybe a tornado ripped your house off its foundation and tossed it two miles down the road.
In others, though, it's possible that the interpretation of events as adversities is more a matter of opinion.
When you feel that you're suffering, it's worth stepping back and asking where you got that idea. Sometimes, we pick up the sensation of difficulty from other people practically through osmosis. Stay in control of your own mind, your own opinions, and your own actions.
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.” – Epictetus
“Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest.” – Epictetus
“Anyone capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.” – Epictetus
Are you embroiled in a standoff with a coworker, friend, or family member? Are your thoughts filled with the last enraging thing they said day and night? Remember that you have the ability to control what you spend your time thinking about, and you are only giving up the control you have to the other person when you let them live "rent-free" in your mind.
“Laugh at yourself. You will never run out of things to laugh at.” – Epictetus
“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” – Epictetus
“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material.” – Epictetus
If you are committed to personal growth, it's important to realize that the times that will likely help you improve in the direction you'd like aren't going to be a lot of fun. This is because who you really are starts to show up when times get tough, and this material is essential after the fact when you're working towards becoming who you want to be.
“What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.” – Epictetus
“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.” – Epictetus
When the going gets rough, it's a chance to find out what you're made of. It might not feel fun at the time, but this is where you find the gold hidden inside of you.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” – Thomas Edison
“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” – Haruki Murakami
We seem to have a cultural idea that our personality is fixed and that people don't change. If you've ever been through adversity and come out the other side with a new perspective, you know firsthand that isn't the case. People certainly can change, and difficulty is one of the things that will help forge you on your path of continuous growth.
Who we are isn't something that emerges and becomes set in stone sometime in childhood. It's common for people to cling to a sense of self they have because it's comforting, but it can actually really hold you back in life. There are many seasons to life, and you have to be willing to continuously check in with yourself and determine which parts of you are no longer useful or healthy.
“Behind the cloud the sun is still shining.” – Abraham Lincoln
“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.” – Thomas Paine
“If you're going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill
One of the most well-known Winston Churchill quotes is one to always keep close at hand when you're in a rough spot. All things must pass, both the good and the bad, and the most important thing to do when you're struggling is to keep taking one step after the other.
“If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” – T. S. Eliot
“It is said that the darkest hour of the night comes just before the dawn.” – Thomas Fuller
“Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you.” – Walt Whitman
There are always things to be grateful for, no matter how bad it seems at the moment. By working to focus on the things you do have, it can totally change your mood and outlook. On top of that, expressing gratitude can make you happier.
“ There is no education like adversity.” – Benjamin Disraeli
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” – Haruki Murakami
No matter what we do, we can't escape the experience of pain in life. What is in our control, though, is how much we let that pain lead to suffering.
One quote that has always stuck with me is this: the only avoidable pain is the pain we cause trying to avoid pain. Pain is a reality of life, but we make it harder on ourselves by trying to pretend it doesn't have to be.
“Out of difficulties grow miracles.” – Jean de la Bruyere
“When life takes the wind out of your sails, it is to test you at the oars.” – Robert Breault
“Avoiding problems you need to face is avoiding the life you need to live.” – Paulo Coelho
If you get into reading the writing of ancient Stoic philosophers, you'll find the concept of "fate" mentioned a lot. When you incorporate the notion of fate into your life, it can help you see that the obstacles in your way are actually essential in your path towards becoming who you are.
“No pressure, no diamonds.” – Thomas Carlyle
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
“Adversity introduces a man to himself.” – Albert Einstein
Want to know who you are? Hard times will show you. If you don't like what you see, at least you have more information to work with in your path towards growth.
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch
“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of the things that adversity often teaches us is that there is more to us than we thought. Learning how to tap into the resources inside you will change your life.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” – Maya Angelou
“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” – Henry Ford
“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In our comfortable modern society, you can easily spend your life going to work, surfing the internet, playing video games, and occasionally enjoying a beer at a bar. Is that what you really want the content of your life to be, though? If you want to grow, you'll need to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.” – Duke Ellington
“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” – Laozi
“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.” – Leonardo da Vinci
What if you smiled in the face of hard times? What if you could relish at the opportunity presented by difficulties?
“If we had not winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.” – Anne Bradstreet
“I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.” — Helen Keller
When something bad happens, it can feel like your life is over. It's not. Keep going.
“The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man without trials.” – Confucius
“You don't develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” – Epicurus
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” – Charles Bukowski
This is very reminiscent of our beloved Stoic philosopher Seneca when he said "it does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it."
“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein
“You are the sky. The clouds are what happens, what comes and goes.” – Eckhart Tolle
“The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It’s the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.” – Napoleon Hill
“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” – William James
Repression of the bad things that have happened to you will come back to bite you. In order to really gain the benefits of growth hidden within trouble, you'll have to learn to accept what has happened.
“So far as my experience goes, travelers generally exaggerate the difficulties of the way. Like most evil, the difficulty is imaginary; for what's the hurry?” – Henry David Thoreau
“Sometimes a man is intensely, even passionately, attached to suffering — that is a fact.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” – Rumi
A lovely, poetic explanation of how adversity leads to new perspectives, epiphany, and growth.
“Light does not come from light, but from darkness.” – Mircea Eliade
“Hardship may dishearten at first, but every hardship passes away. All despair is followed by hope; all darkness is followed by sunshine.” – Rumi
“Be grateful for your difficulties and challenges, for they hold blessings. In fact... Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health personal growth, individuation and self-actualization.” – Carl Jung
If you spend your whole life hiding from hard times, you're really hiding from one of the primary ingredients in the recipe for individuation and self-actualization. Growth isn't just a nice little benefit from hard times-- to a large extent going through adversity is a precursor to becoming the best person you can be.
When something horrible happens, it can be hard to see it as a blessing. After the fact, though, you often see how much you gained from the struggle. As you incorporate Stoicism into your life, consider trying to remember the blessing of challenges when you're in the thick of it.
Have you ever heard this quote?
"Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times."
If you look at the cycles of history, you find there's a lot of truth in it. It doesn't just apply to civilizations and societies, though, but also to our personal lives.
The point isn't to make yourself a martyr and deny yourself the ability to enjoy your life, though. The point is that it's possible to radically change the way you relate to the difficulties you deal with in life. While you can't always avoid the pain that comes along, you can work to understand that this is the fuel that will allow you to get stronger, more courageous, wiser, and more developed as a person.
Whether you're upset about hard times in your personal life or the state of the world, the Stoics are the perfect people to turn to for advice. It's no accident that Stoicism has reemerged as a popular philosophy in these times. When the outside world seems out of control, it becomes paramount to grasp what we can control. Otherwise, we let the chaos of external events dictate our every thought and action.
Are you looking for more inspirational and meaningful quotes from the minds of these ancient philosophers? Be sure to check out our growing library of Stoic quotes and articles.