We often see our times of difficulty as blessings in hindsight — and I do feel like I’ve had my fair share. From heartbreak and disease, disabling injury, losing loved ones, poverty and many other traumatic experiences, I could literally fill a book with the hard times I’ve lived through, as I’m sure most people could.
But instead, I’m writing a book about how I got from a very low place in my life — miserable, self-loathing and hopeless — to a very good place, so I can remind myself of how I did it. It’s literally a 250-page post-it note that I can refer back to if and when hard times rock my boat again. Which they undoubtedly will.
Life never seems to just coast along, calm and smooth, for very long. At least not for me.
Many people may believe that the way our lives unfold is pre-determined by a higher power — that our trials and tribulations are tests or lessons that have been laid out before us and are beyond our control. While others may believe that everything experienced in life is entirely a product of our own creation — the good, the bad and the ugly — whether we are conscious of it or not.
I prefer a hybrid point of view. Perhaps it’s the control freak in me that doesn’t like to feel that I have no say, combined with the part of me that believes in magic and miracles. I like to believe that I am the creator of my own reality, but that I am also part of something bigger, greater and wiser than the "me" I hang out with every day. And I like to believe that although hardships and sorrow are sometimes beyond my control, every experience is valuable and leading me somewhere beautiful.
I believe there are only happy endings, but sometimes you have to look farther along in the story so that you might see them. That can be difficult to grasp when you’re in the midst of a crisis — trust me, I’ve been there. But from my current vantage point, in a moment of grace, I see that I’ve always survived — whether it was divinely ordained or some form of torture by my own hand. Whatever it was, the final takeaway was a rich, fertile experience that has created who I am now. And for that I wouldn’t change a thing.
Here are five benefits I’ve gleaned from the downs in the continuous ups and downs of life:
1. Experiencing things that you don’t want makes you clear about what you do want.
It’s like research — some experiments work out and some don’t, but you're still gathering data the whole time. When something I really don’t like happens, I know I want the opposite and vice versa. With hard times comes amazing clarity.
2. Challenging life experiences gives you more empathy for others.
It’s crazy how often someone tells me about something they’re going through and I'm able to relate. Divorce, depression, anxiety — yep, been there. One upside to squeezing in a lot of hardship into only four decades on this planet is that I have a well of experience to draw on for empathy and perspective. I'm sure you do as well, maybe without even really knowing it.
3. When the going finally gets good, you will appreciate it more than before.
When I am healthy, I praise my body to the high heavens. I couldn’t walk for more than a year once, and now every step I take is a blessing. Today I have love, family, friends, and work that fulfills me — but I have felt the pain of going without each of those things.
The experience of pain can deepen your sense of gratitude — as Khalil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
4. You are always stronger than you realize.
I have been in situations where I thought I could not possibly survive — and yet I did. And I not only survived, I thrived. Human beings are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for, and that gives us the confidence needed to face whatever new challenges lie ahead.
5. The survival tools you develop stay with you for life.
I've developed tools to utilize whenever times get tough again, which they always will — it's all just part of the natural ebb and flow of life. When I find myself in tough circumstances, pushed to the brink and grasping for any shred of joy, I will reach for relief in small moments of beauty and grace: A lovely sunset. A delicious meal. A great song. A hot bath. A funny video.
All we need are baby steps to help reconnect to our true self, which is pure, unconditional love and joy despite whatever it is we may currently be experiencing. That is our life’s work. If we never had hard times, we wouldn’t have an opportunity to practice it.