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From Pain to Possibilities: Making sense of challenges to find meaning and peace

White Butterfly

At one time or another, regardless of our faith in God, the universe or one another, we have all wondered why bad things happen to good people. In fact, the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner, was one of my first resources for examining this, and still a relevant read today. This book was recommended to me in college by my life-long friend and then room-mate to help me wrap my brain around what was seemingly a quite unfair world. While most of us accept life isn't fair, I was beginning to believe it often was both cruel and arbitrary. If things “happened for a reason” who was pulling the strings- and why were so many people directly in harm's way. Rabbi Kushner, wrote the book after grappling with his 3 year old child's diagnosis of a degenerative disease that would markedly shorten his life. He explores the idea that some things happen for no reason at all, and certainly not as a punishment from above. He focused on using our difficulties and struggles to find meaning. The book definitely shifted my perspective from a sense of cruel fatalism to the idea that we can choose our reactions, even in the darkest moments.

And who are these “good people” anyway. Existential psychiatrist Dr. Irving Yalom, explains there really is no US vs. THEM, no experts or students, no good vs. bad, no better or worse- just people. To varying degrees we all have good elements and dark sides- we are all flawed in some ways, capable in others. In the song Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones, we're reminded that “every cop is a criminal, and all sinners saints.”

Who knows more about the contrasts between light and dark than Keith Richards?

Kushner and Yalom remind us that bad things happen to all people. All people suffer, grieve and mourn - and challenges loom large and small in our lives each day. How we choose to experience and use our pain- and even find meaning in the struggle- can be life-altering.

  • Pain has to be acknowledged before it can be used. Denying, sugar-coating and evading pain makes us sick. It's almost like a secret we are trying to keep from ourselves-creating defenses, maladaptive thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Refusing to let ourselves feel or think about sad and difficult experiences is not the same as acceptance. Acceptance is recognizing the reality of what is, how it impacts us, and is best served without judgement.

  • You can learn from pain. Our struggles can be our best teachers. We can learn from our pain, even in situations that are beyond our control. Our reactions to strife can teach us about ourselves, allowing us to understand our desires, needs, and capabilities. We can also learn about the “why” of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors that have lead us in the wrong direction.

  • Pain can make us better. In many situations, a challenge or disappointment can move us closer to our authentic self, the person we were meant to be. Perhaps it is often valid, then, that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. This can be quite true, but only if we work to accept, understand, and metabolize what has happened. Learning from our mistakes and difficulties is a choice, and self-improvement is the reward.

  • Pain can reset our priorities. We have all heard the tale of a workaholic, who, after a brush with death or change in health status, has reset their priorities to include healthier relationships and more time for leisure. It seems our pain can shed light on what we really want in our lives, and what will be the most meaningful when we look in the rear-view mirror.

  • There can be peace on the other side. Sometimes even in the depths of grief- the loss of a child, a terminal diagnosis, we find meaning and peace. Full integration of pain, and for some using that pain to improve their lives or the lives of others, can create an unparallelled sense of peace. Many who suffer from chronic illnesses, for example, are inspired to help others understand, plan and cope with the very same illnesses. Many find a greater meaning and peace in the struggle. That hard-won peace can change us, and open our minds to greater possibilities moving forward.

What can you do today, to learn from your mistakes, disappointments and losses? How will you find meaning in those losses?

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