Your Gift of Darkness: What To Do With Your Suffering

My post idea today comes from a reader, who emailed a heartbreaking note to me. She attached the quote at the top of this post, and wrote:

I came across this quote not too long ago and it stopped me in my tracks. As a teenager I was sexually abused by [identity clipped] for [length of time clipped], so the first part I understand. It’s the second part that stops me in my tracks. How could that ever be a gift? Thank you.

Thank you to my reader who sent me this question, and to all my readers who write to me regularly from all over the world about difficult things in their lives, hoping to find a glimmer of hope, or light, or direction, or just someone to talk to. I am honored to get your notes and wish I could meet you all and have coffee with you, or sit across from you in my office and counsel you personally. I hope my responses have encouraged you in seeking out the help you need.

Perhaps there is no question in life more honest than this one.

The question, really, is how in the world am I ever going to see anything good come out of this horrible thing that has happened in my life?

What does my suffering mean?

What do I do with my pain?

When you have been abused, when you have been lied to, when you have been betrayed or abandoned, when you have lost someone you deeply loved, it can and almost always does feel like nothing will ever be right in your world again.

In fact, wounds that don’t feel like that aren’t very deep wounds. You know you have been dealt one of the most crippling blows life will ever deal you when you question whether you’ll ever recover.

So the question this reader asks is a valid one, and a common one.

“How could my darkness ever be a gift?”

I will attempt to answer this age-old question using quotes from perhaps the one author and one book that has impacted me most: Victor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl, a psychiatrist, spent several years in a Nazi concentration camp and lost many of his family members. The first half of Man’s Search for Meaning recounts many of his experiences in the camp and reflections on those experiences. The second half lays out the system of psychotherapy he created — Logotherapy — that helps people make meaning from their sufferings. Frankl writes,

If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.

This is true because life is suffering. Indeed, no one will get through life without it. If you’re reading this right now and you have never really suffered very much, then this post is all the more important for you, because you are one day closer to your time of intense suffering today than you were yesterday. It’s unavoidable.

Richard Rohr defines suffering as any time you are in circumstances you don’t like and are powerless to change them. I like this definition, because it allows us to see suffering on a much wider spectrum.

When you are in line at Home Depot, and really want to buy a hotdog and Coke on the way out, but you don’t have the money, you suffer a little bit. You feel a tiny sting of desire that will have to go unfulfilled. Of course in the scheme of things it doesn’t matter very much, and you probably won’t need to seek therapy over it, but it does bug you at the time.

When someone unfriends you on Facebook, it causes you to suffer a little. You wonder why. You wish you knew the reason, or that there was some way to find out. You wonder what you did wrong. You realize a lot of Facebook friends aren’t friends in real life, and you feel weird about feeling rejected, but if you’re honest, you know you kind of do. This will probably bother you a little, off and on, for a few days.

When a close friend lies to you, you suffer. It hurts. You wish they hadn’t done it, but they did. That wasn’t your choice. This will bother you quite a bit and you may struggle trying to figure out how to respond. You may need to seek the counsel of a close friend, or spiritual teacher, or therapist. You are really hurting now, and this will last for a while.

When you love someone who doesn’t love you back, it’s terrible. You feel empty, and rejected, and wonder why you’re not good enough. You suffer. You don’t know what to do, and again may need to seek reliable outside counsel. This can last for weeks or months. Without the right help, it can last for years.

When someone you love and trust abuses you emotionally or sexually or physically, you suffer very intensely. You didn’t choose it, or cause it, or wish for it. It was forced upon you. It was beyond your control and now because of the behavior of another person, you are suffering. So much, you don’t know if you’ll ever recover. You will, almost without a doubt, need a lot of help to move forward. You will need understanding friends and family members, some great books that can help you learn to think in new ways, and the guidance of a skilled therapist who can help you piece your life back together. You may well require medication for a while to help calm your anxieties so you can focus on your work in therapy.

The point of these examples is not to suggest a precise suffering hierarchy. People respond to different things in different ways. But clearly some suffering is much worse than others.

But life itself is suffering. You are constantly put in situations you can’t control. Things happen to you all the time that you would change if you could, but it wasn’t up to you when it happened. Every time this happens, it affects you in some way that feels unpleasant. That feeling of unpleasantness is suffering. Suffering is caused by desire for things you cannot have.

Frankl is right. If there is any meaning in life at all, there must be meaning in suffering. If there is no meaning in suffering, there cannot be meaning in life, because the vast majority of life is suffering in some way or another.

“What is to give light must endure burning.” — Victor Frankl

It is just now that I have gotten to the core of my reader’s question. How am I ever to find a gift in the suffering I endured? The reader has already endured the burning, but her question is really, “How does light come from this darkness?”

The answer is contained partly in Frankl’s words above. The light actually comes from the burning. The majority of the great things you will do in your life, most of the beautiful impact you will make on others in your life, will spring in some way from attitudes you formed when things weren’t so good for you.

Maybe you had bad parents and decided you weren’t going to parent like that.

Maybe a family member was an alcoholic you decided never to drink.

Maybe you endured spiritual abuse from an oppressive church leader, and decided you were going to expose religious abuse for what it is.

The light comes from the burning. But I need two more quotes to help you understand this fully.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

Everything can be taken from a man 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. 

Yes, the light comes from the burning. Good things emerge from terrible things that happen in your life. But there is a process to it.

Human beings aren’t firewood or candles. We don’t just light them up and off they go.

If you have been deeply, seriously wounded, how do you ever see light come from that fearfully dark place?

The light begins to emerge from the darkness of your life as you set to the task of healing. As long as the darkness remains dark, there will be no light. But as healing happens, the darkness itself is transformed into light.

As you heal, you begin, automatically, to make your mess your message. You become a beacon, an inspiration, and a light for those who are lost in their own darkness.

This is the real meaning behind that simplistic phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

When bitter circumstances come your way, when things happen to you that you had no choice in, you must choose to add to those experiences the ingredients that will make that bitterness into something sweet, something pleasurable. This is what is meant by the term “redemption.” If you have a pitcher full of lemon juice, it won’t be useful for too many things. It will be offensive, maybe even painful, to drink. But when you add the right ingredients to it, that very same pitcher of lemon juice will become a source of refreshment for you and for others. You have redeemed it, by putting it to good use!

It all depends on what you add to it. Whatever caused the suffering wasn’t up to you. You’d have never chosen it. But now that the suffering is yours, what you do with it is completely your call.

That is the real meaning behind the quote my reader sent to me in her email. The box of  darkness is what is done to you without your permission, choice, consent, etc. But that very darkness ends up being a gift to you, and to others, as you redeem it, i.e., “get better.” I have already written that in the case of sexual abuse, seeing redemption come from those circumstances will probably require a lot of things and take a while.

But it will happen. A fundamental law of this world is that living things reach for the light, and instinctively respond to it and open up to it, and are nourished by it.

If you are in darkness, you redeem what has happened in your life by exposing those dark things to the light. The light of truth. The light of knowledge, education, and experience. The light of love. After a while, your darkness will be transformed into light. It’s inevitable. It’s the way God (or “the universe” if you’re not a spiritual person) made you. You cannot expose darkness to light forever without the darkness becoming light.

I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis on December 5, 1990. I have lived with it for 23 years. It has caused suffering I could not have fathomed when I was diagnosed, and plunged me into unspeakable darkness at times. But it is in those moments of darkness that I have learned the meaning of all of Frankl’s words above. I didn’t choose this, it happened to me. All I can do is adjust to it, learn about it, and change myself, so that I become the kind of person who can inspire others in their suffering, which redeems my own. For me, this has required years of therapy, a lot of reading, prayer, meditation, and learning how to be honest with myself and those I love.

I hate having MS, but I love the person MS has given me an opportunity to become through the suffering it has caused. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This is usually what people say when they redeem suffering in their lives. They aren’t glad it happened, but they know they have become a better person as a result of it and because of that, they wouldn’t trade their lives for someone else’s.

I hope and pray you will be able to say this too. Submit to this process. Expose that darkness to the light and keep doing it. Your suffering will be transformed, your darkness will become light, and you will be free. That freedom will inspire and attract others and you will get so much joy from seeing the wounds of your life heal wounds in the lives of others.

That is how you will come to see your darkness as a gift.

 

 

Why Suicide is Not Selfish

suicide

123rf.com

People say suicide is selfish because choice is involved, but where is choice, really?

There are behaviors we do not have a choice in. If your favorite food is chocolate cake, and I lock you in a room with a fork and a chocolate cake, it’s not a matter of if you will eat the cake, it’s just a matter of when. While you could always say you chose to eat it, if nearly everyone or everyone in your situation would have eaten it sooner or later, there is a certain inevitability to it. If it’s inevitable, it’s pretty hard to understand eating the cake as a “choice” in any meaningful sense.

So what about just toughing it out? Maybe people with depression should just suck it up.

Without treatment, staying alive, for some people with serious depression, is a constant battle. We know from studies on willpower that 1) every person has a limited amount, and 2) the harder a person fights NOT to do something, the closer they actually get to doing it. For some the fight not to commit suicide requires huge amounts of willpower and eventually depletes it. We also know that no one has unlimited willpower. No one. Not me, not you, and not your friends with depression.

What about just changing their thoughts? Why can’t they just stop thinking about suicide?

Sit quietly in a room for two minutes and try to think of nothing. You can’t do it. It’s impossible. Your mind has a mind of its own. It is constantly generating thoughts that lead you off on tangents. This proves beyond dispute that no one has total (and most don’t even have slight) control over the thoughts in their own head. If you do not have serious depression, the only difference between you and someone with it is that the thoughts that automatically come into your head are different. You are lucky, because this is little more than an accident of nature. This means if you don’t suffer from suicidal depression, it is not because you have deeper faith than people who do. It is not because you are more disciplined. It is not because you’re a more moral person, or love your family more. It is not because you have deeper insight than other people, and it’s not attributable to whether or not you believe committing suicide is a sin. If you don’t have suicidal depression, you are fortunate. That’s all. In the same way that if you don’t have MS or other diseases you are fortunate. The automatic thoughts most people naturally have are fairly harmless most of the time, but some have constant thoughts that are very dangerous. Depending on the person, their degree of suicidal ideation, genetic and environmental factors, the question is not if they will attempt to take their life, it’s just when and how. This is still almost completely unpredictable in the mental health arena. We just don’t know who will ultimately attempt suicide. [Or homicide either, which has huge implications for the gun lobby’s suggestion that we have to invest more money in getting potentially dangerous people locked up. But that’s another post.] When thoughts of suicide begin to team up with the thought that removing yourself from the world would actually be better for everybody else, you end up with the twisted notion that this is a good, and perhaps loving, thing to do.

Well horrific things have happened to me, and I haven’t committed suicide

First, you don’t have major depression. But most important, your own experience refutes your point rather than proving it. People don’t take their lives because they experience horrible things like you did. Almost no amount of personal suffering can, under normal circumstances, bring somebody to this point. But when a person has major depression, they can have all the love, money, comfort, fame, and talent in the world, like Robin did, and those things will not keep them from attempting suicide. You may know we almost lost my youngest daughter to suicide three years ago. She wasn’t selfish, she was lost. She thought she was doing us a favor. She knew we’d be hurt, but she thought we’d get over it and our lives would be much better. She didn’t know how to ask for help because she didn’t even realize how profoundly messed up her thinking was. It made sense to her. That’s terrifying to me still, to this day. And getting back into that state of mind is still what my daughter fears more than anything. A few days after her attempt, when she really realized how close she came to dying, it scared the hell out of her and she cried for hours. No one wants to die. But people will only stay alive long-term when they find a reason to live, not merely a reason to not die. I assure you, if you woke up tomorrow and couldn’t find a reason to live, and no medication or treatment could help you, you would probably not be long for this world. No person has infinite will power, and no person can live long without a reason for living. Outside observers say, “What about your children? Your family? Your friends?” But the horrible thing about depression is that, finally, even these reasons end up not being good enough. I know. That’s terrible. It truly is. But it is not selfish. It is diseased thinking and feeling.

Suicide is NOT selfish

So I think it’s irrational to call suicide selfish. That ignores the incredibly powerful instinct all living beings have to live. When a person is somehow able to overcome this most basic of instincts and takes their own life, they have so violated a basic law of nature that it is almost like defying gravity. If someone truly defied gravity, and levitated, you would not ask them how they summoned the willpower to do it, or what strength of character allowed it. Those questions wouldn’t even make sense. Instead you’d ask what special conditions allowed them to do this thing no one else can do. What did they have that others lack. Likewise, when someone overcomes the basic human instinct to survive, asking what flaw in their character allowed it is simply the wrong question. Instead you must ask what special condition existed that allowed them to overcome the life instinct and take their own life (or attempt to). But of course you don’t need to ask that question because we already know the name of that special condition: Major Depressive Disorder, code 296 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

How Your Brain Bends You Constantly Towards Evil (and How to Stop It)

evil -- create an evil human being

Credit: Lenore Edman. Flickr.com. Creative Commons.

There is a part of you that simply feels things, but has no capacity at all for language, or any other abstract ideas such as time, grace, love, truth, or justice. That part of you, the seat of your emotions in the brain, the part of you that just feels, is called the limbic system.

That explains why, when someone hurts you and then apologizes, you may genuinely forgive them and yet the pain may linger for quite some time. Your limbic brain doesn’t understand right and wrong, or apologies — all abstract ideas — it just feels. So it takes time for the feelings to subside. While that time passes, most people (especially religious ones), beat themselves up for not genuinely forgiving.

The takeaway here: There’s literally nothing you can do about it. It just takes time.

There is another part of your brain (this is called the “triune brain” theory, by the way), even more primitive, called the lizard brain. The lizard brain controls more or less automatic things like your heartbeat, digestion, swallowing, etc. This is located in the brain stem. The “fight or flight” mechanism is located here.

The stem is the most basic part of the brain. It is wrapped in the limbic brain, and then the neocortex (the part that evolved most recently) is on the outside.

Why does any of this matter?

Continue Reading »

I need you!

I’m taking a blogging class, and my instructor suggested the following:

If I had to leave you with a final thought it would be to separate your blog from your personal life and think of it as its own unique entity that has a very defined audience. Anything that doesn’t serve that defined audience, probably doesn’t belong on the blog if your goals are to serve that audience as best as you can and to grow your blog as largely as possible with as much engagement as possible.

Maybe you could try sending a survey to your current list and asking for feedback on what they enjoy reading the most on your blog and why to see if they can help you narrow things in a bit.

That’s what this page is for. I need you to help me zero in on the purpose of this blog. That means I need you to tell me why you read it, what kinds of posts you care most and least about, and a few other things that will help me make this blog a success for a bigger and bigger audience.

Will you help me by taking my 7-question survey?

I would be eternally grateful!

Upcoming Posts, 6/5/2014

I’ll do this from time to time, give you an idea of some things I’m thinking of writing about. As always, I hope to hear from you on things you’d like to see posts on. Feel free to post in the Comments section under this post, or drop me a note using the Contact Me button at the top of this page.

  • Why I’m Not Self-Publishing My Book
  • Why All Progress on My Book is Now Delayed Until February
  • How to Post a Comment on My Blog and Get Notified When Others Comment Back
  • How to Subscribe to My Email List
  • Why I Just Signed the Charter for Compassion and You Should Too
  • Why “Pray About It” is Often the Worst Advice You Will Ever Get

I may post on some of these but not all of them, or move in other directions completely, but this is what I’m pondering at the moment.