Suffering seems to be evermore commonplace these days -- we see it in those impacted by the economy, in the virtually-daily tally of tragedy, and in everyday personal and interpersonal upset. The sad thing about suffering is that those of us who do suffer, and I have certainly done my share, seem to be the ones adding to the weight of the suffering load. While your circumstances may be out of your control, the choice to suffer is optional.
Tragic events unfold every day, and each of us has surely endured our own versions. In my life, I have been through numerous emergency surgeries, went through three family bankruptcies, lost my father in my teenage years, lived in my car for a period, and so on and so on. I certainly can remember bemoaning my fate from time to time, and still the temptation arises to feel sorry for myself when the unexpected arises. Earlier this month I was on the receiving end of a blistering attack for a project that seemed to be going sideways and found myself sinking into a certain amount of poor-me-why-is-life-so-unfair thinking.
Fortunately, some part of me recognized that while I may not have chosen either the derailed aspect of the project nor the unexpected attack, I was the one choosing my poor-me response. In a miracle of perfect timing, the week after the explosion, I wound up attending a powerful weekend workshop, Loyalty to Your Soul, masterfully facilitated by Drs. Ron and Mary Hulnick, who authored a book by the same name. Several key lessons in the workshop fit perfectly here, including: How you relate to the issue is the issue, and how you relate to yourself while going through the issue is the issue. Working with these two simple yet profound principles, I have been able to step up my game yet again, abandoning my negative Self-Talk in favor of my more uplifting authentic self, what I call my Soul-Talk.
Heroic examples abound of people who have shown us just how powerful these life lessons can be. Viktor Frankl endured several years in Nazi concentration camps, W. Mitchell overcame a blazing, disfiguring motorcycle wreck followed by paralysis from a small plane crash, while Jennifer Gilbert rose above being stabbed 37 times with a screwdriver. These are but three examples of just how resourceful we can be as human beings in the face of adversity, three who give living proof that we are not bound by our circumstances -- that suffering is, indeed, optional.
While Frankl could easily have come out of the camps with great stories of suffering, instead he brought the lesson of understanding that freedom is that point in time just after they did something to him and just before he chose his response -- the only thing the Nazis could not take from him was his ability to choose his response. In his own words from his phenomenal book Mans' Search for Meaning:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in numbers, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
Mitchell, who recovered from having his face burned off, losing all of his fingers and becoming paralyzed, writes in his book, It's Not What Happens to You, It's What You Do About It:
"Before I was paralyzed there were 10,000 things I could do. Now there are 9,000. I can either dwell on the 1,000 I've lost or focus on the 9,000 I have left."
Jennifer was followed home by a stranger, brutally attacked with a screwdriver, and left for dead. She writes of her ordeal:
To this day the very thought of being pitied makes my stomach turn in revulsion. More than anything, my desire to rise above the label of "victim" is what propelled me forward past those scary dark first six months.
One day, I decided to stop looking back, and realized something that's been my mantra ever since: You can't move forward if you're staring in the rearview mirror ...
I finally realized that I was the only person standing in my own way. As long as I kept telling myself that I was unworthy of joy, then, I felt unworthy. Letting go ... of the anger, sadness, and expectations I once had was my own choice, one I DID have control over.
I know now that while I cannot control what may happen to me in life, I can control who I want to be after it happens. It's a very simple, yet powerful statement. So instead of worrying about life and what it has in store for me, I throw my hands up in the air and enjoy the ride.
In addition to Frankl, Mitchel and Gilbert, thousands of others have demonstrated in different but equally compelling ways the simple truth that while you may not have chosen your tragedies, continued suffering is truly optional. There's no question that each endured incredible levels of physical, mental and emotional pain. However, each chose a path forward, one that left behind nagging self-reminders of victimization and suffering, choosing instead to create a life worth living despite the circumstances each endured.
So, what's your story? Are you letting life circumstances dictate your experience? If that has been the case, up until now, then now may be the time to step up your own game and begin to create more of what you truly prefer in life and less of what you settle for. Don't let anyone judge you for your past, least of all yourself. You may have made choices, even right up to today, that have led to needless suffering. All that is in the past if you choose to respond differently today.
Now is the time you can choose to listen to your own Soul-Talk, to learn your own version of how you respond to the issue, is the issue. Or, as Mitchell writes in his powerful book by the same title, "It's not what happens to you, it's what you do about it."
How have you risen above suffering? How have you found the ability to expand in the face of adversity? Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.
If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, "Workarounds That Work." You'll be glad you did.
Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.
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