The Hidden Blessings of Difficulties

Powerful life lessons can arrive in many guises, good or bad. There are people who cross our paths who give us great joy and confidence, the memory of whom warms our hearts and lifts our spirits. And then, there are those who evoke darker memories, painful associations that make us hurt, slightly hunching our chests in self-protection or furrowing our brow when we remember them. If we’re lucky, these thorns have faded from our lives, but their legacy haunts our awareness. Other times, such individuals or conditions are impossible to escape, their sharp ends poking at us without mercy. These teachers can arrive in any guise. Examples include difficult relatives or coping with a physical or mental condition that makes life exponentially harder. But, the truth of the matter is, these challenges are in our lives to teach us something positive we need to learn.

What lessons are you having to wrestle with that you need to master?

The most powerful lessons I’ve learned have also been the hardest. “Why is this happening to me?” I’d sob, deeply resentful of the burden, despairing about how difficult everything felt. Looking back, I realize now that walking through fire was the only way my hand would be sufficiently forced to reexamine what I was doing, to reconsider my erroneous beliefs, and to build the internal resources necessary to live my life differently.

When thinking about your own struggles, what I want to say to you is this: instead of unduly upsetting yourself, trust that your difficulties exist to teach you things you need to know.

None of this is easy.

Take, for example, someone who grows up in a household where one of the adults regularly turns their rage on the others. While I would never recommend that anyone continue to live under such conditions, I will suggest that witnessing these meltdowns can teach us how hurtful and unproductive rage is. We can take this knowledge and learn to express our displeasure in more productive ways. Similarly, if someone close to us struggles with mental illness or a serious physical infirmity, through our interactions with them we may learn how to be patient, how to build compassion, and how to work around these problems while still finding the good in life.

These sorts of problems are serious. They’re often chronic and inflict suffering for multiple individuals. In this post, I am suggesting a way to re-frame your response so that you seek out a higher lesson embedded within your distress. Bolstering your internal resources of resilience, goodwill, and optimism is a way to reduce the despair you feel when confronted by suffering (whether its your own or that of others). This knowledge doesn’t lessen the difficulty, but it makes it more bearable.

Does what I’m saying make any sense at all?

Allowing our difficulties to have too much influence over how we feel and think is a constant danger. Doing so is a choice remember that! Because the experience is so powerful, it is tempting to replay the memories, searing them into our neurons. This is a mistake since it chains us to a swamp of negativity, anger, and grief. Not only have I done this to myself , I have watched as many people I know have done the same, hurting themselves and others over and over. Who do you think of when remembering somebody who has over-identified with their hardships, unable to extract any possible, positive meaning?

When I get lost in my suffering, one of the strategies I use is to remind myself of how much more I know now and how much better equipped I am to handle extreme stress. Going forward, I know better than to recreate similar conditions. In the future, I will watch for red flags. Having withstood rejection, anger, and embarrassment, I know now that I am far more resilient than I believed. Even better, I realize that just because they say [whatever] about me doesn’t mean it’s true—I needn’t take what they say or do as an accurate reflection of who I am. I am more than what happens to me.

When you think about your painful lessons, who was your teacher? What takeaways did you extract and do you need to revisit any of the (erroneous) conclusions you formed at the time?

I ask this last question because a key part of re-booting demands that we reconsider our old assumptions and conclusions. We don’t always get it right the first time. Alas, all too often we proceed on erroneous conclusions, formed when we were younger, more emotional, less experienced. After being yelled at by his dad in front of fellow teammates, the decisions a twelve year old boy makes about himself, his dad, and how to express anger is not likely to well serve him as an adult. The twelve year old drew the conclusions of a boy. As a man, he may view things differently. He may realize that he had previously accorded his dad’s outburst far more legitimacy than it merited. He may reach a point of feeling compassion for his dad who, in a moment of supreme weakness, vented his own frustrations out on the head of his son.

Do you see how this works? Where might you have done something similar? How are you like that twelve year old boy? What conclusions do you need to reconsider?

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