THE BLOG
01/26/2015 11:10 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

5 Ways to Learn From Troubling Times

Most of us dread and despise difficult times -- whether it be financial woes, relationships breaking down, marriages ending, losing a job, fighting with or losing a friend, dealing with an illness, stress and strain with co-workers or the boss, the death of a loved one, a family feud, an estranged child, or any other of the myriad of trials and tribulations a human being can face in this life.

Viewing life's challenges from a more positive perspective, it was a very wise person who said:

A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.

As we go through trying times, the idea that suffering could have any redeeming value is impossible to comprehend. But, after the healing force of time, we can sometimes see good emerging from bleakness, fear, pain, sadness, and anger.

So without exactly welcoming troubling times into our lives, how can we make the best of facing difficult and painful situations when they inevitably show up? Here's a list to make you consider that even the blackest and stormiest periods of life can actually help us, in the end, to grow and thrive.

1. Realize Most Painful Situations Turn Out to Be Okay in the End

In many cases, the real problem is residing right between our two ears. When we find ourselves in a painful situation, we often:

  • Catastrophize and exaggerate our troubles in our own imagination
  • Have a gloom and doom attitude that isn't fully justified
  • Panic and project about all the terrible things that might go wrong in the future and
  • Live in the problem and not the solution

Troubling times are a perfect invitation to take a deep breath and turn down the volume of our negative thoughts. Surviving and thriving after a troubling time can renew our faith that everything can turn out okay in the end and, if you're spiritually oriented, it provides living proof that God has your back.

2. Live in the Moment

When we truly are beleaguered by problems, losses and strife, there comes a point when we tend to surrender control, to "give up" in one sense, to cry "Uncle," to scream out "I can't take it anymore," or to even get down on our knees and pray for relief.

Some of our greatest emotional breakthroughs and spiritual learnings occur when we finally realize that we do not have control over much of anything in this life. We are certainly not in charge and we don't need to play Atlas, holding up the world on our backs. In fact, once we let go of the fear, anger, resentment or self-loathing (when we blame everything on ourselves), there is usually a slow awakening to the knowledge that the only moment we have to deal with our problems is the one right in front of us.

3. Find Meaning in Life

Our troubling times, once we're through them, often lead to a greater and stronger appreciation of life. Whew, I survived that one! is surely a mantra many of us have chanted on more than one occasion. It's why so many people, when they come through an illness or a major shake-up in life often claim that they never appreciated the little things as much as they did after the crisis lifted or they had survived the ordeal.

Quite naturally, the material things in life start to take a back seat to the importance of loving relationships. Living on planet Earth takes on a new meaning as we stop to appreciate a bird singing or a flower swaying in the breeze. We might be softer and more forgiving or less frantic and more serene. Surviving a difficult time, even the death of a loved one, can make us stop and think of the very special privilege and ongoing Divine miracle it is to be alive.

4. Take Our Pleasures Seriously

When we find ourselves having a good time or enjoying a genuine belly laugh, either after a difficult time has passed, or even during one, the enjoyment can be so much more intense because of the contrast to how we were feeling before.

The Dalai Lama says that the purpose of life is to be happy and, if that is the case, we often have a heightened sense of what makes us truly joyous after we have endured a difficult time. Appreciation for those things that provide us happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment can take on a whole new meaning as we genuinely feel gratitude for the good and profound beauty that surrounds us in life.

5. Experience Strong Spiritual and Emotional Growth

It's been said that most spiritual and emotional growth comes from dealing with difficulties in life -- when we're in a complacent and comfortable place, we're not as likely to seek a stronger relationship with God or to allow our innermost feelings to surface and be expressed. Creative expansion, spiritual deepening and increased emotional sensitivity often entails a journey through fear and pain on the way to genuine growth. Surviving the classic dark night of the soul frequently results in the person experiencing a surge in empathy and compassion towards others and a desire to serve. Wendell Berry's words captures this concept beautifully:

It may be that when we no longer know which way to go, we have come
to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.