Many stories share a basic structure. The main character is called to adventure, to seek some worthwhile outcome. Remember when Luke Skywalker is tinkering with R2 and stumbles upon Leia's DM to Obi-Wan?
Or when Lloyd brings Mary Swanson's Samsonite home from the airport?
Soon, they're off. Things start just fine for the character, but at some point, he or she has to struggle through bad fortune - 'the abyss' - before accomplishing the mission (see also: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell).
Late in Tolkien's Two Towers, the hobbits are beat. Gollum has led them to the edge of Mordor. They're tired and alone, yet they've got a long way to go and possibly an even harder road ahead. They're struggling with despair. They are, arguably, in the abyss.
At that moment, however, in one of my favorite scenes in the novel (I can't remember if it's in the movie), they share an exchange about their situation that changes everything.
Your struggle is more similar to your heroes' struggles than you realize
"I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into" - Samwise Gamgee
In a flash of self-awareness, Sam and Frodo suddenly recognize that when they look back on long-finished, well-known stories, they assume those stories' characters had gone looking for the excitement and danger they got into.
This way of viewing past heroes is normal, even for entire societies. What does George Washington look like in our collective imagination? Like this. Straight glory, homey.
It dawns on Frodo and Sam that since, in the abyss, they don't feel like famous past warriors look in our re-presentations - i.e., like George Washington looks in that painting - they'd been subconsciously viewing their hardship as fundamentally different from that of their ancient heroes...as more hopeless.
Sam now sees that in reality the legends of old were plopped into situations in which they didn’t belong, just as the hobbits have been, not knowing how their journeys would end. Sam and Frodo further note that some of their favorite characters had it much worse than they do right now.
Now, by seeing their struggle as similar to the great feats they used to sing about over pints as youngsters, Sam and Frodo find new hope that they too can bravely forge ahead despite uncertainty and suffering.
Your story is part of THE story
"Don't the great tales never end?" - Samwise Gamgee
The hobbits also see that the story they're in, with its many trials both big and small, is actually just the latest part of a bigger, ongoing story. In fact, it's a continuation of the old tales!
They have a clear line-of-sight from their sad little camp, a crevice near the top of a shadowy stair, to the deepest, darkest pits traveled by the adventurers they've admired their whole lives. Sam and Frodo are not just audience members anymore; they're fellow characters. And their troubles are immediately infused with new meaning.
Find significance in your struggle
When we seek something worthwhile, our journey is made more meaningful by the struggles we endure along the way, but, as it did for our fine hobbits, gaining this perspective requires reflection:
How is a current struggle of yours similar to that of someone admirable from long ago?
What's the larger narrative your story fits into?
Resources I like
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller for more on thinking about life as a story
The Atlas of Middle Earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad because it is by far the best companion piece for reading through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or the Silmarillion
Like what you read? Feel free to feature this in your own piece - just be sure to cite me