I heard about a talk once where the speaker asked people in the audience to shout out the emotions or experiences they most want to have. You can imagine the answers, right? Things like: happy, joyful, content, confident, successful, and on and on. The presenter wrote those all down on one side of a black vertical line he’d drawn down his white board.
Then he asked the audience to tell him about the situations they felt defined them as people. What were the core stories or experiences that made them who they are today?
To this question, person after person told stories of heartbreak, loss, confusion, grief, rejection and failure. And so our presenter wrote all of those states and feelings down on the other side of the vertical line and then stood back to examine it.
“So here on one side of the line,” I imagine him saying (I heard this story second hand), “we have all of the things that humans want to experience.”
“And here on the other side, are all of the things that lead to growth and meaning, the things that ultimately make us who we are.”
I imagine him taking a long pause while the audience took this in.
“Isn’t that INTERESTING?” He said finally.
And I think it is.
How interesting that we resist and resent the very things that provide the most rich soil for our growth and evolution. In fact, we take it a step further. We seem to believe that we actually shouldn’t have difficult times or difficult emotions, that any difficulty is a sign that something is wrong.
I’m as guilty of this as the next person, don’t get me wrong. I hate feeling sad. Or lonely. Or having one of those days (or weeks, or months) when the colour seems drained out of the world and nothing matters enough to get excited about. It’s tough to see the value of times like that when we’re right in the middle of them, which is part of why they’re so hard.
It’s almost as if we believe that life should be all clear skies and smooth sailing, and anything else means we’ve veered dangerously off course. I suspect this belief that life should be easy is what leads to much of the additional suffering and self-doubt and anxiety that creep in when things are hard. In addition to struggling with something, we’re also telling ourselves the very fact that we’re struggling means something must be wrong, either with us or with our life.
But if I think back to the many hard things I’ve been through, the things that have indeed made me who I am, I can’t say I would change any of them. Sure I wish I learned certain lessons more quickly, or with less attendant pain, but hey, I’ve always been a late bloomer, and I learn things in my own good time.
There’s a beautiful poem by Kate Baer called ‘Things My Girlfriends Teach Me’ that finishes with this:
“When life throws you a bag of sorrow, hold out your hands. Little by little, mountains are climbed”
Imagine responding to difficulty by accepting it, instead of turning away and wishing it were different. Imagine trusting that the sorrow or the sense of failure and confusion are inevitable stepping stones along our path to becoming. I assure you, I’m nowhere close to this myself, but I am just starting to get the hang of saying “I feel sad today” when I feel that way, and just letting it be what it is. To me this feels like an important first step.
I want to be clear about something. I’m definitely not saying “life should be HARD” either. That mindset is super toxic, and tends to lead to fulfilled expectations.
There is no should here. Life is a mixed bag. It’s up and it’s down. Easy and hard. Heaven and hell, and everything in between.
One thing I’m noticing as we start to see a light at the end of this long COVID tunnel, is how much people have grown in the last year and a half. Visiting old friends in the last couple of weeks I was overblown by how much people have grown. Decades worth of growth seem to have been compressed into an extremely painful and difficult few years. And isn’t that interesting?
It’s hard to notice my own growth most of the time, but it’s been really evident to me how much the people in my life have grown recently, so it stands to reason I’ve done some growing too.
Maybe that’s something for you to reflect on as well. How have you grown during this last year and a half? What new capacities have you developed as you navigated all of the loss and uncertainty? What have you let go of during this time of forced reflection and paring down, and what do you know now that you simply couldn’t see before?
My guess is if you look for it, you’ll find you have a lot of depth and growth to celebrate in yourself. And isn’t that something?
Here’s to celebrating how far you’ve already come,