A Celebration of Disaster
We are grateful to Eben H for sharing this post with us. Enjoy!
Emotional pain cannot be avoided. But how we assimilate and integrate emotional pain into our lives is a choice. The way most people talk about trauma and stress, it is easy to reach the conclusion that both are irredeemably bad—something to be avoided as much as possible. But emotional pain has many wonderful attributes. That sounds ridiculous but it's true. It reminds us that we care. It cuts through the bustle and noise of life to allow us to focus on fundamental questions of existence that we otherwise can easily ignore. And it provides an opportunity to grow. What the caterpillar experiences as the end of the world is in fact a transformation into a butterfly.
So how can we embrace emotional turmoil and pain and make the most of its positive effects? First, we should acknowledge it when it hits us and "lean into it." Rather than denying it, we can label the pain we are facing. For example, you might simply say to yourself, “I’m stressed about my son failing school.” Or, "I'm worried about finances." Or "I know my mom died many years ago but I'm missing her a lot this week."
The second step is to "own" your stress and pain by recognizing that we tend to stress more about things that matter most to us. Owning this realization unleashes positive motivation—because deep down we know that things that are important shouldn’t always come easy. A metaphor climbers use to describe this frame of mind is “It’s just a cold, dark night on the side of Everest.” If you were climbing Everest, you could imagine that there might be some cold, dark nights on your journey up. But what did you expect—that climbing Everest would be a walk in the park? Do you really expect that raising a child, recovering from addiction or grieving a lost friend or relative would be easy?
After you acknowledge and own your pain, the final step is to make a promise to yourself that you will use your pain as an opportunity to grow. You can ask yourself, "How can this experience serve me?" Pain can lead to the acquisition of mental toughness, deeper social bonds, heightened awareness, new perspectives, greater appreciation for life, a sense of meaning, and strengthened priorities. Indeed, the famous American philosopher William James’ once wrote about “twice-born” personalities to argue that great leaders share the common experience of working through traumatic episodes in their lives.
On the night Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, Bobby Kennedy gave an extraordinary, impromptu speech from the back of a pickup truck in Indianapolis. You'll remember that Bobby's brother, JFK, was assassinated when he was president. Bobby rarely spoke about his brother's death in public, but that night he mentioned it to the crowd. And the topic of his brother's killing seemed to draw his mind to a passage of poetry that he had committed to memory. It was from the poet Aeschylus, and I think it speaks to the point I'm trying to make.
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
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