BY: Jason Kniola
Spoiler alert: Life does not always go according to plan. When it does, we can relax and enjoy those times. However, many times life takes turns that are shocking, disturbing, heartbreaking, and extremely difficult to cope with.
When the disappointments of life come knocking it is hard not to become bitter, resentful, or just plain sorrowful. It is natural for most of us to lean this way. Some things are hard to accept, forgive, or adjust to. When possible, it’s important to monitor and adjust our narrative during these dark times. We can get caught in,” why me?”, “this isn’t fair!”, “it’s all hopeless!” These are understandable reactions – and it’s not like they aren’t partially true. Sometimes it seems life isunfair and full of suffering. Looking into the darkness of personal and societal pain, our hearts can become very heavy. Hope can evaporate. But it’s also during these times of suffering that we can explore, when we are ready, new ways to view the difficulty.
One of my mentors once posed this question: “What is your life consecrated to?” It is a powerful inquiry. In a deep way the question points to the meaning of our life. It checks the personal narrative with mindful contemplation. In face of joys and sorrows how does one make meaning? What is it all for? What is it all about?
One potential meaning to help in dark times might be, “my soul chose this incarnation, with all of these experiences, to learn, grow, and love.” Is this True? It doesn’t matter, really. Some find that this belief brings comfort, meaning, and purpose. The point isn’t whether such beliefs are inherently true or false. The point is to find the narrative that speaks to us and resonates deeply. Suffering with meaning is much more manageable to bear than meaningless pain.
Another inspiration is that of a life consecrated to compassion. When suffering arises any compassion that is brought to it eases the pain for all beings (self included). Life can be difficult. Our reactions can make things much, much worse. Any compassion, for self and others, lightens the load for all. Each individual that faces addiction, depression, or crippling anxiety and finds sobriety, hope, or healing helps others to see it is possible to overcome deep personal struggle. The suffering – and the recovery – means something.
This is not to say we can always easily adjust our narrative to meet dark times. It is not a failure when we don’t ‘measure up’. Sometimes we need a period of falling into the negative. It’s human to become depressed, sorrowful, resentful, bitter, angry. However, knowing that there is another way, when we are ready, can be a lamp in the darkness.
When we are ready and willing to challenge the less-than-helpful ways we see ourselves, the world, and suffering, we take our first step on a journey within. As with all journeys, we meet challenges, successes, failures, and learning along the way. It is helpful in the beginning to take note how we talk to ourselves about our daily life, our work-world, homelife, and friendships. Journaling is helpful as we track our daily inner dialogue. Some of what we find in our inner narrative can be surprising, some already known.
Once we know how we tend to narrate our lives we can start to sort through what is useful, what is outdated, and what needs a complete overhaul. The good news is, we are not stuck with our narratives forever. We can change our stories if we are motivated to do so.
How do we change our stories? We need to try on new ones to see how they fit. We can read books on psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. Watch TED Talks. There are many options in the world for how to view self, life, illness, death. We can explore new belief systems to find what resonates and discard the rest. We can explore churches, spiritual communities, or meditation groups. Therapy is another option to help challenge old beliefs and incorporate new, healthier views.
We each have the gift of awareness and choice. As our narrative arises in difficult times, we can ask ourselves, “Is this what I really believe?” And from there, we can work towards different perspectives that lead to deeper acceptance, peace, and meaning.