The year 2020 has unleashed a tsunami of suffering that continues to engulf much of the world, undoubtedly reverberating throughout the lives of everyone across the globe. In my own personal sphere, I have seen loved ones get furloughed from their jobs under the threat of more permanent layoffs, known friends who contracted COVID-19 (including one hospitalized in serious condition), and watched a restaurant where I marked one of my most memorable evenings with friends close its doors for good. And given that experts have forecast a gloomy outlook for the rest of 2020, it would seem that the global misery wrought by the coronavirus has only just begun.
In trying times like this, I have sought spiritual refuge in stories of resilience amid adversity－such as the tale of Goujian, the king of Yue during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) who inspired the Chinese saying woxin changdan, or "sleeping on sticks and tasting bile".
It all began when Goujian saw his nation defeated by the Kingdom of Wu, whose king, Fuchai, demanded that Goujian become his royal servant. So the Yue king not only lost his crown but also found himself thrust into the lowest rungs of the palace of his enemy, a prisoner to the whims of a man who had destroyed his country. The demeaning work required of Goujian included mucking out manure as well as acting as a kind of personal stable boy to the monarch, from feeding the king's horses to leading them whenever Fuchai wanted a ride.
And if you really want to talk about taking crap from someone, consider Goujian's most legendary deed during his three years serving Fuchai: He tasted the Wu king's excrement to diagnose illness in a move to gain the monarch's trust. As repulsive as it sounds, it so deeply moved Fuchai, who saw the gesture as proof that Goujian had wholeheartedly submitted himself in service, that the king set him free.
When Goujian returned home, he resolved to rebuild his country and see the Kingdom of Yue rise again. To fuel his determination, he adhered to an ascetic lifestyle so he would never forget all of the humiliation and pain he had endured as a servant to Fuchai, best summed up in the words woxin changdan. He preferred an uncomfortable bed on the floor made of sticks. And he hung a gall bladder in his room, so he could taste the bitter flavor of bile every day. Over 10 years of his leadership, the Kingdom of Yue emerged as a strong and prosperous nation－one that eventually struck back and ultimately conquered its adversary, the Kingdom of Wu.
Despite the indignities he experienced at the hands of Fuchai, from the crushing loss of his country to the mortifying years of serving the king, Goujian was never beaten down by hardship. After surviving and returning home, he harnessed that traumatic experience to ignite his determination to achieve his goals.
In distressing times, I often whisper the phrase woxin changdan to remind myself that from great suffering can come great redemption, as long as I weather the storm and don't let go of my own dreams.
I'd like to think that Goujian would have approved of that acclaimed aphorism attributed to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
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