You might think that August 20, 2013 -- the day an armed gunman came into the school where I worked and trapped me in an office with him -- was the darkest, most difficult day of my life. But the truth is, it wasn't. There were other times in my life when the pain and fear I felt were just overwhelming, and I wasn't even sure I'd be able to go on.
In all of our lives, there are moments of darkness and pain, and sometimes that pain seems too great to overcome. I know that feeling well. But what I've learned is that there is a way to take that pain and use it to discover your true purpose on this earth. There is a way to turn pain into purpose.
Here are three steps to changing how you think and act during the hardest moments in your life.
Step One: Validate Yourself
Sometimes the worst pain comes from feeling abandoned and unloved. That happened to me when my marriage of more than three decades ended. When my husband walked out on me, he took my sense of self-worth with him. Without him to validate me as a human being, I began to think I wasn't worth anything at all.
When you're not in the middle of the pain, it's easy to see how wrong that thinking is. But when you're right in the middle of it it's hard to think any other way -- or at least it was for me. When my husband left I believed I had no one to love me and validate me, and I felt like the slightest wind could sweep me away and make me disappear. I felt like I was no longer anchored to anything. But over time, and with the help of my Bible, I realized I was wrong. My anchor was, and always will be, God.
The only validation you need is the validation God gives you. I know it is very hard to accept this, particularly when you are feeling terrible pain, but that is how I survived my darkness -- by scratching and clawing my way to this understanding. One morning, I looked in the mirror and I said, out loud, "Antoinette, I love you. And God loves you, too." I don't think I really believed it that first morning, but I said it anyway. And that night, I stood in front of the mirror and said it again.
"Antoinette, I love you. And God loves you, too."
This may sound kind of simple to some people, but, for me, it worked. Slowly, I began to change the way I thought about myself. If I was worth something to God then I had to be worth something to the world. If God loved me, even in my darkest hour, then how could I not love myself?
And by saying these words out loud every single day, I began to feel loved and validated again. I found my anchor in God.
Step Two: Focus On Solutions, Not Problems
One of the things I did during my most painful days was spend a lot of time thinking about my problems. I turned them over in my head again and again, focusing on what was wrong. It's very easy to fall into this trap, where all you do is worry about your problems and feel sorry for yourself -- I know I was guilty of that. It's human nature, I guess. But it is also not very helpful. Imagine if, in that schoolroom on August 20, all I said to myself, over and over, was, "I'm trapped with a gunman! I'm trapped with a gunman!"
There is no point in obsessing about your problems. All that energy and brainpower should be focused on a solution. When my life was falling apart around me, I sat down at my kitchen table one day and took out a piece of notepaper. I decided I was going to write down all the negative things in my life in one column, and all the positive things in another. I was going to take an inventory of my situation. And that first day, do you know what I wrote down?
Nothing. Not a word.
It was just too hard to see anything positive in my life. So I sat there with my paper and pen and cried for an hour. But the next day I was back at that table with the same paper and pen. And eventually I wrote something down -- I can't even remember what it was. All I remember was that, when I finally completed a list of all the pros and cons in my life, there were many more good things than bad.
And that changed the way I looked at my life. I went from just writing down pros and cons to writing down ideas for how to fix my problems. And over time my problems began to seem more manageable. Try this when something in your life seems overwhelming -- sit down with paper and pen and make a list. Do it every day. And what you'll find is that eventually you stop focusing on the problems. Your mind begins to focus more on solutions.
Step Three: Make Your Life About the Future, Not the Past
It is very hard to let go of your past, and no one knows that better than I do. For years I held on to my old life, refusing to let go. I just couldn't see any other life worth living. Letting go of your past is a long, hard process, and for me that process isn't over yet. In some ways, it's just beginning.
Moving on from the pain and troubles of your past takes a lot of time. The past isn't something you can stick in a microwave and zap in a minute or two. It takes a lot of effort to put your past where it needs to be -- behind you. But here is why it's important that we put in that time and effort -- because if we live in the past, we will never discover our destiny.
Destiny, promise, potential, purpose -- all of these are things that have to do with the future, not the past. If we keep surrounding ourselves with the old bags and boxes of our past there's no room to bring any new stuff in. We have to clear away the clutter so we can see what God has planned for us next.
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God," it says in 1 Peter 5:6-7, "so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you."
We need to surrender our anxieties to God -- surrender our past to God -- so that He can exalt us and raise us to a new and better place. Only by living our lives based on the future, and not on the past, can we allow this exaltation to happen.
So work on changing the way you think about what matters in life: Not everything that came before, but everything that is still to come, in God's glory.
By following these three steps in my life, I wound up in a place of great comfort and peace. I was able to turn my pain into my purpose. My mind was clear and ready to listen to God in that schoolhouse on August 20.
And it is clear and ready to listen to God today.
Follow Antoinette Tuff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/antoinettetuff