"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Don’t waste your suffering

By on February 25, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments

What knocks us down can also lead us back stronger than ever

By June Darling

“When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering…” 

— Meng Tzu, The Book of Mencius, China, 3rd century BCE

One of my favorite “Good Life” contemporary philosophers, Jonathan Haidt, got me thinking some years ago about the value of adversity and the problem of overvaluing what I will call “haha happiness.” 

Haha happiness seeking is about wanting to be intensely and continuously on an emotional high. 

Happiness is a great resource, but overvaluing this haha sort of happiness can cause us to flee from tough stuff, which lessens our chance of becoming resilient and resourceful.

Resilience — the ways that people cope with bad things that happen to them and bounce back — has been a hot topic for many years. 

But only lately have researchers begun to focus on the benefits of stress. These benefits are often called post traumatic growth (in contrast to post traumatic stress disorder). 

One benefit is that we can find or develop new skills and abilities. Haidt says that one of the most common lessons people draw from trauma is that they are much stronger than they realized which gives them confidence to face future stress. 

Another benefit has to do with relationships. Trouble can cause some friends to melt away, but those that stay often develop into stronger, more authentic friendships. 

A third benefit is that big trouble often re-arranges priorities and carries a useful lesson. Often the lesson goes something like this… caring about people matters more than caring about money and achievement.

I had a personal stop-in-my-tracks opportunity to reflect on the value of adversity recently. I hurt my back while exercising and then fainted, which injured my head and neck. 

I was flat on the floor, afraid to do much moving. I just stayed there for a while to rest and consider my options. 

I looked at my phone, which was beside me. There was a message from Dr. Edward Farrar. 

Most long time Wenatchee Valley residents know some of Dr. Farrar’s story. He’s a sports enthusiast and orthopedic spinal surgeon who has completed incredible adventures around the world. 

In October of 2008 Ed was hit head on by a car which “ripped his body in half,” according to an article in the Wenatchee World. The accident left him physically paralyzed from the chest down. 

Ed Farrar has learned to deal with adversity — and his inspiration can get us off the floor from our own misfortunes and mishaps.

In Dr Farrar’s email he shares a copy of what he calls “his little prayer to help him through.”

May I accept the suffering that comes with the gift of life, 

And may I know that samsara brings meaning to living. 

May I find the wisdom to ask the right questions, and to live them fully. 

May I find the energy to search wholeheartedly for the right answers, and the strength to accept them no matter how hard. 

May I weave those questions and answers into a life of compassion that keeps meaning alive in my life and in the lives of others.

Dr. Farrar is clearly not paralyzed in spirit nor psychological vigor. I have seen him riding a recumbent bike around the Wenatchee River Loop Trail with a bunch of friends. 

I know he is heavily involved with helping others who have suffered spinal injuries. He’s exactly who I want to hear from especially on this day when I’m lying on the floor afraid to move.

I do have a little prayer of my own that I use to remind myself that adversity can help me be a better person. It goes:

May I be happy and healthy. May I also use pain, suffering, setbacks, and failures to make me more compassionate, wiser, stronger, and more resilient. 

I had been saying that prayer to myself earlier as I was resting and it was creating some amount of ease in my emotions and in my body, but that email of Ed’s got me right up off the floor!

It might have been the words of his “little prayer” that elevated me, more likely it was because I was inspired by Dr. Farrar, by his story, by his compassionate reaching out to comfort others.

We can learn to positively deal with adversity — AND adversity MAY lead to beneficial outcomes. That’s clear from Dr. Farrar’s story and it’s well supported in the resilience literature. 

Furthermore, there is an even stronger take on the value of adversity. 

In this version, people MUST endure adversity to grow — the highest levels of growth and development are ONLY open to those who have faced and overcome great adversity. 

We don’t yet have all the data to support the value of strong adversity, but the ancients like Meng Tzu and St Paul certainly believed it. “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans). 

Haidt points out the implications. We may be seeking haha happy, safe lives and avoiding challenging situations that could help us grow resilient, strong, and happy in a deeply satisfying way.

Most of the time in March, I’m thinking about good luck, shamrocks, and leprechauns with pots of gold, but this March, I am going to continue reflecting on the value of bad luck, of adversity. 

If you are like me, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experience things not going your way. Hold on to role models and compassionate friends to help you through. 

Perhaps you will even consider writing your own little prayer. And especially, notice the benefits.

How might you stop overvaluing intense, continual happiness and consider the benefits of adversity?

June Darling, Ph.D. can be contacted at drjunedarling1@gmail.com; website: www.summitgroupresources.com. Her bio and many of her books can be found at amazon.com/author/junedarling.

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