The following is adapted from The Empowerment Paradox.
From a young age, we are taught that suffering should be avoided. Don’t touch the hot stove. Wear a helmet. Be careful when it’s slippery.
The problem is not all suffering can be avoided. Everyone faces pain at some point. If we treat suffering as something only to be avoided, we will be unprepared to handle the unavoidable suffering in our lives.
We must reframe suffering as something unpleasant but not without value. After all, it is only through suffering that we can experience and appreciate joy. As a result of winter, we appreciate spring. As a result of illness, we appreciate health. As a result of death, we appreciate life.
The opposing sides are not at war, but tightly joined together—two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other. By understanding the interconnectivity of joy and suffering, you can learn to accept and even embrace the suffering of your life, recognizing it as a potential catalyst for growth and greater joy.
The Blessing of Pain
Often it is the lowest, darkest times in life that lead to the greatest personal growth. That was the case for my friend Andy.
Andy had an accidental fall that broke his back. The doctors repaired the extensive damage by fusing pieces of his spine, which made matters worse rather than better. He often walked with a cane and sometimes used a wheelchair due to the injuries he’d sustained.
I asked him once how often he experienced pain.
“Every day,” he told me.
“Are you in pain now?”
“Yes,” he said, remaining just as calm and composed as ever.
When I inquired further, he told me that it felt like his feet and legs were on fire, and that this was his normal state of being. Sometimes it felt manageable, and other times it overwhelmed him. On those days, he often worked remotely from the relative comfort of his home.
Remarkably, he also told me this: “I have come to appreciate that breaking my back was the second-best thing that ever happened to me—second only to meeting and marrying my wife. What it has demanded of me has shaped me into a person I never would have become otherwise.”
I don’t call attention to my friend’s story to establish any kind of hierarchy of suffering. His story is remarkable not because of his degree of struggle, but because of his response to it. When faced with great pain, he chose to find the blessing within the struggle, using it to grow.
Turning Struggle into Strength
It’s important to realize that overwhelming struggle will not always lead to overwhelming victory. There is no guarantee attached to suffering. One person might discover similar strength of character through much less severe circumstances, while another might live with higher levels of chronic pain and feel completely buried and defeated by it. Still another could feel buried under objectively lower levels of stress.
So how do we turn struggle into strength? How do we transform our struggles from heavy shackles to fertilizer for growth?
The way we grow or suffer through the challenges of life depends entirely on our perspective. When you face struggles, you can choose to see it as unfair, as pain without meaning, and as something to be tolerated. Or you can choose to see it as an opportunity, as something that will make you stronger.
If there is to be meaning in life, there must be meaning within the suffering. Time may heal all wounds, but it seems evident that time also wounds all proverbial heels. There is no escaping suffering, yet there is also joy to be found when we are patient, humble, and accepting of our circumstances.
But this perspective does not develop overnight. When Andy first broke his back, he wasn’t immediately happy and appreciative. However, the fact remained that his back had been broken. He couldn’t change that, and the working of time and necessity brought him to a place where his heart changed.
By adopting a similar perspective, you too can turn your struggle into strength.
A Life of Joy and Suffering
If we’re asked to envision a happier future, it is often one that is stress-free. We imagine an emotional homeostasis where we have acquired enough wealth to remove strain that requires personal growth, where our relationships are fulfilling and engaging, and our physical health is in top condition. We see ourselves with a perfect and enviable work-life balance, the personification of everything good.
This vision of happiness, however, removes stress and strain, when in fact, it’s those uncomfortable facets of reality that make happiness, fulfillment, and joy possible.
Though not all of us will sustain terrible injuries and live with incessant pain throughout our lives like my friend, we can all grow through whatever suffering we’re presented with and find joy in the midst of it.
For more advice on the interconnectivity of joy and suffering, you can find The Empowerment Paradox on Amazon.
Ben Woodward’s repeated personal experience with family trauma, chronic illness, and corporate crisis have taught and tutored him with intimate insight. The gained wisdom from such lessons have seen him thrive as a senior executive in multibillion-dollar companies, becoming the global president of a multinational corporation. He has served on the board of directors for trade associations, traveled to thirty countries as a keynote speaker, business leader, and entrepreneur, and most importantly, enjoys a wonderful home life with his wife Kim and seven beautiful children. To reach Ben, visit EmpowermentParadox.com.