I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.
~ Robert Browning
The Purpose of Pain
We have all gone (or will go) through difficulty, challenge and sorrow. The loss of loved ones, the loss of personal health, of economic security, of love, or some other form of trial and tribulation that will someday stick like a thorn in the side of your life, poking and hurting and bleeding … at least for a time.
There are lessons to be learned in such circumstances — lessons about life, about you, who you are, what makes you tick, what traits are strong, which ones need fine-tuning, and which ones need a full overhaul. They teach us lessons about relationships and goodness and challenge and priorities and life.
The following list is by no means conclusive (and please add to the list in the comments!), but can help us focus on the positive side of pain in those times in our lives when it is most difficult to see the forest through the trees of our physical or emotional anguish.
It is easier to endure hard times, after all, when we can recognize some purpose or meaning behind the difficulty we are going through. Below is just such a list of lessons (purposes) we can learn from the trials we experience.
22 Lessons Adversity Teaches
Enduring a difficult period of suffering not only requires patience of us, but builds it in us as we exercise that often-neglected moral muscle.
The pain we have to endure helps us recognize the pain in others’ lives more readily. We feel for them, remembering the pain we suffered.
When we experience deep pain in life, the smaller stuff can become easier to tolerate. When you have lived in a box as a prisoner of war for 3 years, a cranky attitude from a store clerk is no big deal. What’s a sprained ankle to a woman who has undergone triple bypass heart surgery?
Life’s trials can have a humbling effect on us. We realize we are not almighty or self-sufficient, that we can’t do all things at all times relying on the strength of our own backs. We come to see the interdependency and importance of support from family and friends … and God. Trials tend to soften the rougher edges of the proud.
5. Inner strength
As we persevere and endure, we discover an inner strength we didn’t know we had. Sure, there are breaking points for most of us, but so much more inner power resides deep in the grit and fiber of our deepest selves than most of us are aware of … at least until life calls on us to discover it!
6. The importance of laughter
Have you ever been in the middle of a storm when suddenly the clouds part for an instant and the sun peeks through as if to say, “Hold on a little longer, this too shall pass?” This is what often happens with our personal storms as well, as the sunshine of laughter takes on new significance. Such seemingly insignificant moments can make all the difference in our ability to hold on and persevere another day. Laughter, at time, truly is the best medicine.
7. The importance of friendship
Our trials and tribulations are often all-consuming. As such, they can strain even the best of relationships. But when we have friends who stay the course, we start to realize the depth and sacredness of friendship.
8. The importance of family
Often when life has become uprooted, families pull together and focus their attention on a common enemy (cancer, natural disaster, loss of a child, financial collapse). Even when friends can’t be there, family often is. It is in those moments that the importance of family can suddenly transcend the memory of fights and contention, offense and rivalry.
9. The importance of being surrounded by positive people
Have you ever fought with all your heart, might and soul to keep your thoughts positive while you faced the monstrous giant of adversity? It is a tough ride. We are just so fragile when every ounce of energy is focused laser-beam-like on one goal … emotional or physical survival. Just one negative pessimist can pull the tower down. It becomes crystal clear at such times just how important it is to surround yourself with positive people.
10. The importance of positive thoughts
Dark periods of our lives often bring out our darkest moods. But this just exacerbates the problems we face. Our own thoughts become much more clearly linked in a cause-effect relationship to our ability to navigate troubled waters. We can clearly see how negativity shows up on a heart monitor, how we fail to follow up with calls to rebuild our finances, how the marriage further deteriorates. We can see more clearly the need for a positive attitude and a good dose of optimism when everything else looks dark and foreboding.
Our hearts can be made both larger and softer when squeezed by circumstance. We can very quickly learn to appreciate the decency of others. We remember the pain we felt and the unexpected bright light others emitted when they showed compassion to us in our darkest hour.
12. Gratitude for the small things
When life is at its bleakest and it feels like everything is crumbling at your feet (or on top of you!), a flower blooming from a crack in the sidewalk takes on new significance, meaning and beauty.
13. Life is too precious to waste on petty resentments
When crippling life circumstances threaten everything, the petty things we store up in our hearts can suddenly seem as ridiculously trite as they usually are to begin with.
14. The small stuff doesn’t matter much
Have you ever gotten so angry at someone you just couldn’t see straight, and then took a step or two back from the situation and realized how foolish it all was? Being confronted by life’s hurtles can have the same effect, drawing us into deeper moods of contemplation, causing us to see more clearly the pettiness of far too many of the things we ordinarily would have taken more seriously.
15. The big stuff does matter
But family and friendship, God and character, integrity to cherished values, attributes such as love and courage, compassion and forgiveness suddenly seem more immediately important than they ever did before, often to the point that the smaller stuff gets squeezed out of our hearts and minds.
16. The importance and power of touch
When life is churning around us and we feel ourselves sinking, a hand, a hug, a caress, a touch can be magical.
Each moment of pain is preceded by a previous moment of pain. Each moment of pain precedes a following moment of pain. That loop can begin to feel extremely heavy and like it will last an eternity. That’s when hope begins to fail and other more permanent thoughts of escape begin to seem preferable. It is a noble act of profound courage in perseverance to take the next step in life anyway. And that lesson of endurance in suffering can prove invaluable to those who have gained it on the bumpy terrain of life.
18. Life is fragile
As we feel crushed by our particular set of challenges, we can gain a better appreciation for just how easy life can slip away. If this lesson is learned well, so much more of life will be lived with passion and joy. It can also be lengthened by a renewed commitment to better health.
19. Time matters
Lying in a hospital bed for days on end or a lengthy bout of unemployment has a way of focusing our attention on the issue of time. The glimpses we gain into the fragility of life can lead us to value the seconds that tick away day after day in frivolous pursuits so much more – so much so that we finally start to fill that time with greater meaning and significance.
20. Prevention is a good investment
There’s nothing much more instructive of the need to brush your teeth than the loss of them. There is nothing more instructive of the importance of food storage like a natural disaster. There is nothing more instructive of the need to live below one’s means like an economic meltdown.
21. Procrastination doesn’t work
Similarly, we quickly come to realize that putting off the inevitable doesn’t change its inevitability … and usually makes what was already inevitable much worse than when we first noticed the need to take care of it. Procrastinated tasks have a way of snowballing into bigger adversities. And the pain of the adversity often acts to poignantly underscore the lesson learned.
22. The importance of living everyday with purpose, joy and meaning
When we lie at death’s doorstep — or even sit on the curb in front of the house of life’s non-lethal challenges — all the wasted hours and days and weeks of our short lives start to add up to something much more significant than it seemed at the time. We realize so much more could have been done with those fleeting moments, but wasn’t. We regret the love we didn’t express, the forgiveness we didn’t extend, the humanitarian project we never took action to begin, the lives we could have touched but got too busy to make the effort. Time starts to acquire a sacred quality.
Two Stories to Consider
There once was a man who lived his life in the vain pursuits of self-indulgence. He was at the end of life when he suddenly realized his mistake. Guess what he did. He filled his remaining days with love and joy, happiness and meaning. And guess what happened! His remaining days were joyful, happy, meaningful and filled with love.
Moral of the Story
It is never too late to start living life in a way that reflects these lessons learned. Was the end of his life short? Was it long? Does it matter? It was filled with love and joy! And that’s the bottom line of it.
Three men walked to town together in the dim light of the early morning. The first man was talking to the second and fell into a hole. The second man noticed what had happened too late and fell in with him. The third man, seeing what happened in time, avoided the fall. After doing their business in town, they returned down the same path, this time in the dim light of dusk. The first man fell in again. The second man remembered the hole just in time and walked around it. The third man walked behind the two until the first fell in, so easily avoided the fall once again.
Moral of the Story
What is the difference between the 3 men? One was foolish; he never learned the lessons taught by his mistakes. The second was wise; he learned the lesson his own earlier mistake taught him. The third man was truly enlightened for he learned from others’ mistakes and avoided them altogether.
Whether you have fallen in the holes of life or not, the lessons pain teaches are still lessons to be learned with or without the stinging delivery pain provides its students. I invite you to learn them and avoid needless holes we may otherwise find ourselves lying flat on our bruised backs looking up from.
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