Bruce Lee’s practical advice for living in difficult situations was born from his own experiences persevering as a young Chinese actor making a name for himself in the film industry. No matter the obstacles that arose in his path, he continued to apply himself daily in order to reach his goals. Read below for his advice for living in interesting times and get even more insight into his philosophies in The Official Bruce Lee Collector’s Edition, Volume 4.
There is an ancient Chinese saying made famous to modern Americans by Robert F. Kennedy during his 1968 presidential campaign: “May he live in interesting times.” Kennedy tellingly calls the words a “curse,” and since he was making a point about the parboiling racial, class and generational conflicts of 1960s America, it’s easy to see why. Kennedy went on to say: “Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are of danger and uncertainty, but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.” For Kennedy, the danger was the hook. His speech is a politician’s: a whiff of fear brings the audience in and, hopefully, gets some votes. Incidentally, RFK’s brother John used the same tactic in a similar speech during his 1960 campaign when he—incorrectly, as it turns out—told his audience: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity.” Again, danger is used as a fear-inducer. For Bruce Lee, however, it would have been the last clause of RFK’s speech that carried the real truth of the ancient saying: “...they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
“Do not pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a difficult one,” is the way Bruce phrased his version of the original saying, and Shannon Lee admits on The Bruce Lee Podcast that “out of context, it seems like Bruce is encouraging you to toughen up because winter is comin.” When the quote is taken as a part of Bruce’s greater philosophy of cultivating harmony, the strength it speaks of is not the hardiness to endure a harsh winter or a run of bad luck. It is calm confidence and the ability to recognize and move with your flow. As Shannon puts it, “ An easy life is not something you get because you pray for it or fight for it; the ease comes when you practice self-actualization and achieve peace of mind.”
When faced with a task, our flawed animal minds can make it seem far more difficult than it really is. Living an “easy” life under these circumstances—whether the task is as simple as your daily exercise or meditation, or as complex as changing careers or lifestyles—is to be complacent and do nothing, even knowing deep down that moving with the apparent flow offers more to your process of self-actualization. As Bruce said, “A fat belly cannot believe that such a thing as hunger exists.” When a person has the strength to face life’s difficult decisions and situations with the calm, open self-confidence exemplified by Bruce, it’s easy to recognize this complacency, not any perceived danger associated with our very human—but very weak—fear of change, as the real enemy.
Fear of the unknown is one of the most surely imprinted in the human mind, a relic of a time when trying a new leaf or berry, or trying to hunt the wrong new animal, could easily have menat death, and when almost any cut or scratch ran the risk of deadly infection. Even in the modern U.S., accidents are still the fourth most common cause of death.
As any soldier or martial artist can tell you, fear in the hands of someone you can control can be a useful tool. It keeps you careful and heightens your senses under those circumstances, but when fear becomes the primary motivator, it often cripples us. It can make any task seem as impossible, no matter how objectively beneficial. Novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it like this: “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”
Life isn’t meant to be something we’re constantly fighting against, Bruce would certainly agree, but fighting against complacency is the best thing a person can do for their growth as a person in harmony with themselves and the world around them. The idea of having strength to live a difficult life is what allows one to flow through life with ease as Bruce did. When we are “like water” and find creative ways to flow around obstacles rather than letting ourselves get caught up in complacency, what might seem like a difficult life to someone less self-actualized can be navigated with flowing ease.
This kind of strength is gained, as Bruce knew, through endurance. Again, though, this isn’t as simple as thinking of life as a challenge and strength as the endurance to fight against the world day in and day out. Instead, it is a more active form of patience with which we can calmly experience our entire lives—not just the challenges and not just the triumphs, but every crest and trough in between.
When one reads the words “easy life,” they might seem like a blessing, but thinking about them further, ti becomes clear that easy is not synonymous with good. That doesn’t, however, mean that life needs to be the constant uphill battle it seems to be too often to too many of us. When Bruce tells us to pray for the strength to endure a difficult life, he’s also asking us to have the strength to understand that difficult isn’t synonymous with bad either. Life will always find places to toss a boulder into the stream in front of us: The algae that grows on the boulder leads an easy, unchanging life—the water that flows around the boulder goes on to a million new places.
Want more practical advice from Bruce Lee? Check out The Official Collector's Edition, Volume 4!