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Can You Be Greater Than Your Suffering?

06/18/2015 10:24 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

Draw a horizontal line on a piece of paper. Write everything that is going great in your life above the line, and everything you are struggling with below the line.

Do it now. I'll wait.

Give the piece of paper to a friend to hold for safekeeping. In three years, have the friend give the paper back to you. I predict that most, if not all of the notations below the line will have moved above the line. How did that happen?

Nobody wants to suffer, yet all of us do. Life is filled with challenges, struggles and losses. It is part of the human condition; nobody escapes it.

My greatest period of struggle was the end of my first marriage. I never imagined I'd get divorced, and when it happened, my emotions went wild -- ranging from anger to sadness to frustration to loneliness.

But as I look back on it now, I realize that much of my current happiness is built upon what I learned during that difficult period.

While you may have no choice on what causes you to suffer -- a divorce, failing health, a partner leaving us, a business failing -- you can choose how to react.

Ben Okri, a Nigerian poet and novelist, said: "The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering."

You can choose to see yourself as a victim. You can lament your fate and just struggle to survive until it passes. Or you can accept the truth that suffering is part of your journey and embrace the incredible opportunities it offers you to grow and develop. Here are just a few to consider.

1. Suffering wakes us up to the reality of change

Life is always changing. When things are going well, it is easy to pretend the good times will continue forever. A sudden loss or traumatic event wakes you up to the reality that nothing stays the same. Understanding that change is constant helps you in both good and bad times. In good times, your awareness that life is changing encourages you to be grateful for today's good fortune. In bad times, you are reminded that this too will pass.

2. Suffering reminds us that we are human.

When we encounter tough times, it is easy to ask "Why me?" The answer is always the same. Because you are human. No matter your struggles, it is a safe bet that your struggle, your suffering, is not unique. Whatever you are going through, others have gone through before.

When you realize that you are not alone, your struggles may become a little less painful. It somehow seems a little less personal. You realize that others have endured this pain, and survived, even thrived.

When you embrace your humanity, you acknowledge that all humans make mistakes and you are more likely to forgive yourself for your mistakes. Self-forgiveness is a critical ingredient for personal growth. When you forgive yourself, you lose the urge to blame others and you allow yourself to learn from your experience.

3. Suffering allows us to connect with others and increases our compassion.

After I got divorced, I went out and built new friendships. I discovered that I was less judgmental and more compassionate towards others going through a similar experience. I could listen patiently and empathetically to the struggles of others with a more open and loving heart, and by that process created strong bonds with men and women who had been through their own difficult divorce.

When you allow yourself to be vulnerable by talking about your own struggles, you open up the space for others to open up to you. It is much easier to talk to someone who you know has struggled with their own issues than someone you perceive has always had it all together.

4. Suffering allows us to learn and grow.

When you are going through a difficult time, it encourages you to consider whether you are living an authentic life, one that is consistent with your inner sense of who you are and what your purpose is. Your struggles give you the motivation and the opportunity to learn new things, seek out new insights. You may even discover a new purpose in your life.

My divorce was actually the spark that started me on my own personal growth journey that helped me find my purpose and led to the creation of my Guided Wealth Transformation program, which totally transformed the philosophy of my wealth management firm.

I didn't choose to get divorced, and go through that dark time in my life. But as the author Junot Díaz wrote in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, "It's never the changes we want that change everything."

5. Suffering gives us confidence.

Through your suffering, you learn that you can survive and even thrive during difficult times. That helps to prepare you for the next big life challenge, and also gives you the confidence to pursue something new. I grew more resilient realizing that I can make it through a very tough personal time.

While we may not choose to suffer, we can choose to learn and grow from it. As Nietzsche said, "To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering."

Please share with me how your past suffering has helped you build a better life today.

David Geller is the author of Wealth & Happiness: Using Your Wealth to Create a Better Life. He is the CEO of Atlanta-based GV Financial Advisors and is available for professional speaking engagements.

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