I spent last weekend doing some yard work in 100-degree heat. (Perhaps my sense of timing is not the best.) When I finally came inside, drenched and muddy, I cleaned up and then finally sat down to rest. Sinking down into my chair, sighing as the tension in every muscle finally eased up and cool air blew over my face, the phrase dulcius ex asperis echoed in my head.
This Latin phrase is often translated as
“sweeter after difficulties."
I've sat in that chair many times but never quite appreciated it the way I did in that moment.
It was so much sweeter to relax and put my feet up after having strained with heavy loads and uncomfortable temperatures for hours and feel all of that fall away. I knew my yard looked better and my muscles were stronger after that work, and that added to the beauty of sinking down into that chair at the end of a long day.
While studying Latin many years ago in college, I gained a great appreciation for the profound depth of meaning that the way Latin grammar is crafted can add to the vocabulary, really making the words come alive with richness and vivid imagery. My Latin is a bit rough, but here's my understanding of the richness behind this phrase:
Dulcius is an adjective that means "sweet, kind, pleasant, or soft," and asperis is an adjective that means "rough, harsh, adverse, or difficult." Although there is no noun in the phrase for these two antonyms (opposites) to modify, it is understood as "things." The preposition ex means to "come out of" or "come from" something, and the dative case of asperis further strengthens that there is cause/effect link between the two.
Thus, the meaning I get from this phrase is that the satisfying moments in life come out of, and are directly related to having experienced, the harsh ones.
Dulcius ex asperis crafts our adversity into a story to tell.
The first time this really struck home for me was during a training session for sandtray therapy. They asked us to use objects to tell our story, so I placed a string of objects into the tray. Then they had us look at it, and asked if there was anything we wanted to change. Immediately, I felt my hand want to reach out and remove the hard, uncomfortable parts of my story. I even noticed that I hated that they were in there. But my hand stopped, and I realized that I couldn't take them out. The storyline wouldn't make any sense if I did.
As much as I wanted those parts gone, I knew they couldn't be. Then my hatred for those parts turned into appreciation. I couldn't have a good story if I didn't have all of the chapters.
How interesting would it be to watch a movie or read a book that covered only the pleasant events of the character's life? You wouldn't really know the character. You wouldn't identify with them or even have any compassion for their journey because there was no struggle to overcome. Your view of the characters would be one-dimensional and boring.
What are the chapters of your story?
What did you gain for having come through your difficulties? Was it the realization that you did something harder than you ever thought possible? Was it the push you needed to stretch yourself and grow, perhaps gaining new skills?
Or maybe you still have chapters yet to write. Perhaps the sweetness still lies ahead. In that case, it might be helpful to work with a therapist to guide you toward writing that part of your story and taking full advantage of what you gained for having experienced the harsh times.
I think the common translation "sweetness" misses the mark in the phrase. Seeing those parts that come after the difficulty doesn't take away from how hard the middle parts were. It doesn't make the middle any less painful. It doesn't make it "okay" that you were hurt. I don't know that "sweetness" really captures what it feels like to come through hardship and to know that, even in pain and loss, you have gained something you didn't have before - such as the confidence in yourself that you can come through hard things.
Both the pain and the confidence parts are equally real, equally there, and equally a part of your story. If you took either one of them away, you wouldn't have the rich meaning that the parts have when they are put together
Considering this, if you had to give your story a title, what would it be?