Lessons from the pain, or: how I learned to stop suffering and love the journey
It was lunchtime on November 28 before I realized the significance of the date. The revelation was discovered due to an innocent conversation with a co-worker. Details about certain family history were questioned. I considered my answer, did some quick math, and then realized what would have been obvious and dreaded by most in my situation: It was the seventh anniversary of my mother's death.
Anniversaries of deaths are a strange thing for me. I often forget about them until some well-meaning individual reaches out to me to say that she's thinking about me. I'll ask myself why this person's so concerned before realizing it's the anniversary of someone's last day on this earth. And then I feel bad for not recognizing the date earlier. It's not as if I don't remember because I don't care. In some way, it's quite the opposite. I tend not to dwell on such anniversaries because I miss my deceased loved ones every day. In that sense, the anniversary truly is just another day.
The last few years have been riddled with loss. The loss of individuals. Relationships. My former self (This loss was probably the least obvious and the hardest to recognize and accept). And so the last few years have certainly had their share of pain, as I'm sure almost anyone could understand. There has been a lot to process. There were many lessons that needed to be learned, and some took years to unravel and dissect. But here I am, seven years later, sure of my new truths and realities, and also, in a strange way, I now find myself thankful for the whole experience.
Let me clarify—that does not mean that I'm happy about the losses themselves. My recent past and path are not something for which I would volunteer, nor are they something I'd wish upon another individual, even my worst enemy, if such a person existed. But regardless of what I may want or wish for in this life, certain things happened. And so the last few years of my life can be summarized as follows:
You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you.
Though I'm no fan of platitudes, when I find a quote full of wisdom, I have to give it the credit it deserves. Thanks, Brian Tracy, whoever you are.
Over the last few years, I've come to learn that finding lessons in painful experience is one of the better ways in which an individual can heal and grow. The process is not easy. Nor is it pleasant. It takes a lot of self-examination. A lot of self-exploration. A lot of self-critiquing. And maybe even a lot of tears. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that one will find answers or come out better on the other side, but I'd say it's fairly certain what lies ahead if one does not try: a lifetime of personal torture, victimhood, and misery.
In order to get to a better place, I had to learn how to put myself first. “Self-centered” isn't the right term, as it makes one sound selfish. It's a practice I prefer to call being “self-concerned”. I usually roll my eyes at such linguistic nuances, but this is one that I feel accurately communicates a certain necessity. The process of becoming better through painful experience will most likely require you to take timeouts from other people and their problems and concerns. It's about effectively putting yourself first so that you can eventually give your best self to others.
Obviously my own losses have created a great deal of pain. But I'm now at a point where I can appreciate the positive things they've given me. For one, my experience has given me a greater capacity for empathy, as I'm better able to understand what others may be feeling when they're experiencing losses of their own. I've learned to better appreciate meaningful relationships and the exchanges they allow me to have. And I'm also able to appreciate the fleeting precious moments in life that were once so easy to take for granted. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the lessons from my pain have allowed me to feel more useful to others. Because of my experience, I have something more to offer during moments of stress or chaos, and I have to recognize and accept that there was only one way I was able to get to this point. And that way was by moving through the pain instead of trying to avoid and deny it. The peace I now feel seems to have come almost overnight, but I know all too well that it's the product of years of work, which is the reality of almost every overnight success.
This past Thanksgiving I caught myself asking what I was truly thankful for. And I didn't want to say the typical platitudes: my family, my friends, my job, though I am thankful for what I have in each of those categories, and I am in fact thankful for so much more. But on this day in this moment, I found myself considering who I had become and considering how I had become this version of myself that I've become quite fond of. This person began to form and materialize because of events that started over seven years ago, when I first heard that my mother had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. And so, when I think about it like that, I'm thankful for the pain associated with the losses. It's only through the pain that I have been able to learn and become something better than I once was.
Since I began this journey, I stumbled across a quote that has stuck with me and shaped how I see personal tragedy:
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
It feels good to know that I can confidently say that while I definitely know pain, I do not suffer, and I refuse to do so. What I once saw as a burden, I now see as a teacher and a facilitator of betterment.
Adversity is the best teacher, after all. Malcolm Gladwell said it, so it's gotta be true.