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Making Meaning out of Suffering

Posted on Tue, Sep 8, 2020 By:
Posted in: blogMental Health & Mindfulness

Good morning friends! Happy new week to all of you!

I hope you all had time to check-out and check-in with yourselves over the past week! I intentionally checked out for a few hours after I dropped my kids off for their first day of school, and had to force myself to do nothing. It was unusual, uncomfortable, and important. And now I’m feeling a bit more energized and hopeful as we move into fall! I hope you are, too. Thanks for joining me for another week!

I’d like to offer something for your consideration, but I know well that there is a time and a place for this and today might not be the time and place for you. Let me give you just a nibble, so you can decide if this is what you’re interested in today.  If not, please feel free to file this blog “later”, if and when it comes. In brief, I want to broach the topic of making meaning out of suffering.

I know from personal experience of the importance of being ready to consider the meaning that suffering brings to my life. If I feel pressured to do this too early in my struggle, it feels like my pain is being minimized and some pollyanna is trying to make me look at the ‘bright side” of the darkness just so I’ll “get over it”. And that can really tick me off. My intent is definitely not to tick anybody off! So, please know that I only offer this if and when you are ready.

Because, when you are ready, looking at the meaning that suffering brings to our lives can be powerful and amazing and life-changing. And hasn’t this been a season of suffering? Since the pandemic hit and the world shut down more than six months ago, we’ve been pushed outside of our comfort zone to struggle it out in a world now so strange and unpredictable. So many emotions with that!! Through the ups and downs of the past six months, I have felt scared, frustrated, hopeless, helpless, excited, hopeful, helpful, sad, disappointed, resigned, and inspired, just to name a few 🙂 As you, too, have struggled, how have you kept putting one foot in front of the other? What gifts and strengths came to the forefront for you and helped you move through the pain and fear? What did you find out about the relationships you have in your life as others reached out to comfort, provide for, and assure you? What gifts and treasures did you notice along the way that you hadn’t noticed before? What, now, do you no longer take for granted? Despite the struggle and the hardship, what now do you know or have that you would never want to forget?

Some people have referred to the coronavirus pandemic as a “wake up call”. What has this time of suffering woken up in you? A commitment to caring for the earth? A renewed closeness with your loved ones? A preference for spending time vs. spending money? I’ve heard others call it a “reset”. How have your priorities changed during this pandemic?

Remember the forest fires in Fort McMurray? Remember how bravely and fiercely strangers came to each other’s aid? Remember what we learned about human nature from witnessing that (and perhaps for some of you, what you learned from experiencing that?). And I remember hearing – maybe you do, too – that while Fort McMurray residents would never want to go through the terrifying and devastating fires again, they would not give up their experience for what it taught them.  Perseverance; compassion; resiliency; that material things aren’t of value, relationships are; what really matters.

I will be happy to NEVER go through a pandemic again for the rest of my life. But what have I learned from this experience that has enriched me? That has allowed me to be thankful for the opportunity COVID-19 gave me? To be honest, I’m not completely sure YET. But, I am thinking about it.  And I’m opening up to the possibility that COVID-19 has taught me something invaluable about myself, my family, my friends, and my world. And in opening up to the possibility that the suffering has something to teach me, I’m working to minimize the negative impact it could have on me. I’m working to rise above the suffering and see something more. To accept the suffering as an ally to my development, not an enemy.  To see myself as a conqueror, not a victim. To know that I am more than my circumstances, that I am riding with the waves, rather than being pulled under by the currents.

Some days this is easier than others. And that’s where self-compassion comes in. To acknowledge that we are doing the best we can with what we have and know at the time. And that’s perfectly ok.

Stay well,

Melanie

Resources:

1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-find-meaning-in-suffering/

2. Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.

3. Positive Psychology’s “10 ways to develop resilience” is a brief visual list of 10 strategies for getting through tough times (attached).  Find more at: https://positivepsychology.com/resilience-activities-exercises/

5. https://www.verywellmind.com/ways-to-become-more-resilient-2795063

Especially for those we work with:

1. It’s important to think ahead about whether a person is ready to look at the meaning in their suffering. If you think they are ready, broach the topic carefully and sensitively. Talk about what the person has learned about themselves during the challenging time in their lives.  Work to keep the discussion as positive as possible, but don’t dismiss the negative – validate the tough stuff. You may offer what you have seen as the strengths and skills developed by the person as a result of the life struggle. Celebrate the ways in which the person has grown stronger and more resilient as a result of choosing to work through and overcome the struggle. Validate and congratulate!

2. If you are finding the people you support are struggling with understanding and feeling successful in the current state of things, consider coaching them to develop and practice some of the strategies listed in the articles referenced here (links in the resources section above) for building their resiliency and sense of empowerment.

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