A few years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop with my friend, M. She half-yelled at me as I was sobbing into my coffee: “Your pain is your power. You are a force to be reckoned with my love.”
I didn’t believe her. How could she possibly think this depression, this grief was my power? How could she possibly see ANY there possibly be any good in my dad dying?
It took me awhile to see it–years in fact–but turns out M was right: my pain is my power. And yours is, too.
Malcolm Gladwell writes about people who survived The Great Depression and World War I in his book Outliers. This cultural background and experience, he asserts, is what created the path for their respective successes. After seeing some of the worst in humanity, they didn’t lose hope. It was the opposite in fact. They found ways to activate their pain as service for the world around them.
That is to say: People often don’t succeed in spite of their personal tragedies and adversities; they succeed because of them.
Tragedies and adversities help us build and tap into parts of life and ourselves that we couldn’t possibly without them. It seems screwed up to even write, knowing as I do just how bad the pain can be, but there is so much we can gain in experiencing the hardships of life.
These gains aren’t immediate, but they will come. And when they do, somehow, oh somehow, we will be better because of them.
Here are just a few of the many:
Overcoming adversity and pulling yourself out of darkness takes emotional muscle. You build that muscle the same way you would build actual muscle–by putting in the hours of work. Every hour you invest compounds and soon you suddenly know at a very deep level that your power to overcome obstacles–physical, mental, and emotional–is nearly limitless.
One of the beauties of experiencing such deep pain, especially at a young age, is that you know that because you’ve survived once, you can likely survive again. You don’t want to, certainly, but you know you could. This knowing allows you to truly embrace life for all that it is.
Hard stuff– adversity, pain, and suffering–these things create a sense of perspective that couldn’t exist without them. They are the ultimate guide for understanding what matters and what doesn’t in life.
Because truly, so much of what we care about has an infinitesimal impact in our lives (or others’ lives for that matter). We are so bound up by social conditioning and the need to feel, be, and do certain things–it can be exhausting. But when tragedy comes knocking, the desire to conform to the world’s expectations disappears.
It allows you to completely tear down your preconceived limitations, feel safe taking risks, and open yourself to new opportunities. Because suddenly what mattered before doesn’t anymore–in fact, it can’t anymore.
There is nothing to be afraid of when the worst has already happened. It creates this sort of invincibility—you can navigate life at a distance from what doesn’t really matter, while fully immersing yourself in what does. The inessential, residual day-to-day bullsh*t just drops off. The transient and unimportant junk melts away.
When it’s as dark and dreary as it can get, an insatiable hunger–for knowledge and new skills–wafts over. The only way out, you quickly realize, is to find a way out. And the only way to find a way out is to learn. That seems overly simple, maybe, but it’s also simply true.
The first step into healing is building a new framework, story, or belief system that this “hard thing” or bit of adversity makes sense in because, as humans, we require that kind of meaning and structure to move forward. To do this requires extreme drive–fueled by the desire to escape darkness and begin thriving again.
After my dad died, I became hungry for knowledge, understanding, and self-actualization. I read books, attended conferences, saw therapists–you name it, I did it. I didn’t just want to understand my dad’s passing, I wanted to understand myself—my purpose in this world and what I was to learn from this quarter-life disaster. It is through these things that I have been able to completely reinvent myself and incorporate my losses into my life in a myriad of empowering ways.
One of the best things about going to the depths of despair or experiencing spiritual hardship, is that you acquire the ability and context to understand other people who are there or may have been there before.
By approaching others with compassion, you can go further, experience deeper connection, and feel generally free from disappointment and anger. Real compassion, grounded in experience, gives you a completely new lense to to view the world and understand people’s emotions, words, and actions through.
Like David Foster Wallace said in his famous commencement speech:
“If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer…”
Imagine that. Imagine not wasting any time thinking terribly of your coworkers or friends–but instead being able to approach them with the only the best in mind. This is real compassion, and it is the pathway to seeing the best in people.
Side note: I’m quite convinced experiencing personal adversity or tragedy is the only way you can activate compassion at a deep level. Who’d have thunk?
Adversity, tragedy, and hard things often reveal themselves alongside a loss of purpose. In a world before “that thing” happened, you had one purpose. Now a piece of that (or the entire thing) has been lost–at the same time as that relationship, person, career, or former life.
But you can’t really “go on” without a purpose. That’s called depression. And when you’ve had enough of that terrible and dark place, and you’re craving a deep sense of meaning again, you reconstruct some semblance of purpose from the ground up. It can take on many forms and usually starts as a hunger to understand (as noted above).
But as your life progresses, this piece of you–this play with adversity or hit of tragedy– has the potential to manifest itself in activated service. You are hit with a desire to end this particular kind of suffering for others (whether that’s creating some sort of non-profit or just being extremely supportive of the people who dealt with this particular hardship beside you).
You find a way to activate your pain to for others and that is truly beautiful. It’s the reason I designed my Purpose Program.
Extremely difficult things connect us with other people in more profound ways than otherwise possible, but they also bring us into a grander understanding of the forces of the universe. They highlight this intangible subtlety to the world around us–and open up pathways for understanding what’s going on underneath the surface of the day-to-day monotony.
You could read a hundred books on grief or racism–but your understanding of those things would be quite limited until you experienced them firsthand, or at the very least, witnessed them from a close distance. This is the kind of wisdom that comes from tragedy and adversity — the kind that can’t be purchased. The kind that is hard-won.
WARNING: as you walk on this path, of discovering yourself through tragedy and adversity, people may start calling you an “old soul.” (I like to think of that as a compliment, but I know it bothers some people.)
Psychologists have a great term for this: it’s called Post Traumatic Growth. Yes, just like PTSD, but the opposite. It doesn’t come at first certainly, in fact PTSD may very well come first, but it can (and will) come with time.
In fact, it’s everything I’ve been describing–a new sense of compassion, purpose, hunger, strength, perspective… When taken as a gestalt, these are all the key ingredients of personal growth (both internal and external).
These are coincidentally (or not) the elements necessary to live a life of massive success and fulfillment as well.
My dad’s death (and all the residual grief and pain that’s accompanied his passing) is the reason the last seven years have been a period of expedited growth. It’s the reason I’ve been able to start numerous businesses. It’s why I’m living in Los Angeles and why I had the guts to leave my unfulfilling career as a litigation attorney.
It’s why I’m here… doing the things I am. This is my life’s work because of the pain I’ve gone through. I had to find a way to “fill the void” that was resourceful and empowering and here I am–growing still, learning more day by day.
Perhaps the best thing that hardship gives us is a deep understanding of how little we control in life. It shows us that as hard as we push, as much as we try and enforce our will, sometimes sh*t just happens. There’s no one to blame, no clear reason… it just is.
This can close us off and make us bury under for awhile, but eventually it has the potential to help us open to all that life has to offer. To feel the Ying & the Yang of life–or the good in the bad and the bad in the good. To begin seeing everything as neutral. To really lay back and let life unfold.
And that truly is priceless.
I’m not sure the ends will ever justify the means. It’s still not okay that my dad died (it’ll never be “okay” in that sense).
But the thing is: we don’t get to control what happens to us. We don’t get to decide what cards we are dealt. We will all experience hardship, adversity, and tragedy. That’s just the way life works.
People will snub us and do terrible things. We will have our hearts broken and dreams shattered from time to time. The cause, timing, and result don’t matter so much. At some point, unless something goes terribly wrong in the tilt of the universe, you will lose someone.
It was meant to happen that way. It is our job not to fight these tragedies, pains, and adversities, but to accept them, learn from them, and grow. It doesn’t make pain right, but it does make going through the pain worth it.
And when the going gets tough just remember:
Your pain is your power. And if it isn’t today, I promise it will be someday soon.