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The transformative power of suffering

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Linda: Life is sometimes difficult. We don’t get what we want, and we get a lot of what we don’t want.

We can start to slip into a mindset of “Life shouldn’t have to be this hard," or “What’s wrong with me that I have so many challenges,” or “My life is cursed.”

If we continue to play these same thoughts over and over in our mind, they become more believable. One of the skills to help us develop as mature, resilient individuals is that of reframing. When we change our point of view on any given situation, the facts remain the same, but a deliberate shift is made in how we see it.

We can replace the dismal, energy-stealing thoughts with more responsible ones, such as: “I think there must be something important for me to learn here.” These are examples of reframing problems as challenges, and taking them on as such.

As we shift our thinking about our situation, there is a change in emotional tone and the meaning that we give to our life circumstances. We can choose to move our experience from a negative frame to a more hopeful one, filled with opportunities. This process allows us an expanded view of our reality.

One example of reframing is redefining a problem as a challenge. Such a redefinition activates a different way of being. Problem has a heavy quality to it, while the notion of a challenge is enlivening.

Another example and an extremely important opportunity for reframing occurs during an angry interchange. When our anger is inflamed, we are more likely to close our heart and deteriorate into judgmental, critical thoughts such as “she is such an angry bitch,” or “he’s such a selfish bully,” or other variations on the theme of "the world out there is doing it to me." When we are flooded with feelings, we are rendered temporarily helpless. In that moment, we may put the other out of our heart, making them an enemy.

With a committed effort to practice pausing to reflect, we can remember that underneath the anger, both our own and that of others, is fear and pain. In that crucial moment of reframing we can dare to speak more vulnerably about our own fear and pain, which so frequently invites the other person to disarm themselves to speak vulnerably with us as well. To regularly practice reframing takes a concerted effort, but one that allows for tremendous rewards.

A frequently quoted and dramatic example comes from Victor Frankl in his book, From Death Camp to Existentialism, in which he writes of being in a concentration camp. For three years, he lived through starvation and torture in four camps. He lost his beloved wife and all of his family, and observed most of his fellow inmates die. Frankl kept his mind active, planning the lectures he would give after his release, using the material from the death camps to illustrate points he wanted to teach. As a devoted teacher, his careful, deliberate planning of his future lectures kept his spirit and body alive in hideous deadening conditions. He survived the death camps and did go on to realize his vision of using his experiences as a great healer.

His process was a giant reframe of a hideous situation being transformed in Frankl’s mind to be used for a worthy purpose. He was determinedly preparing to use his suffering to help others find hope in their particular horrible physical or mental situations. Most of us will never have to endure anything close to the hell that his life was composed of in the concentration camps, but we can be inspired to keep our attitude strong and hopeful, even in dire circumstances.

Reframing requires seeing something in a new way, in a context that allows us to recognize and appreciate positive aspects of our situation. Reframing helps us to use whatever life hands us as opportunities to be taken advantage of, rather than problems to be avoided. Breakdowns are transformed into challenges and new possibilities to experience life more fully and to become a more whole human being.

Reframing is not a denial that the challenge that we have been dealt is a difficult one. Even though our circumstance may be fraught with hardship, we can learn to trust the cycles of life. We discover that this is a process of life that repeats itself, as do the cycles of summer, fall, winter, and then rebirth in spring. Through an understanding and trust of this transformative process, we come to have faith that periods of decline, whether they last for minutes or months, can become periods of vibrancy. We are less likely to be possessed by ongoing moods of pessimism, hopelessness, or resentment. Our prevailing attitude becomes one that is more optimistic.

Only then can we find resources we didn’t know we had, and continue our movement toward wholeness. As we engage our discomfort by reframing, we learn to trust that good results can come. We don’t close our heart in bitterness, because we come to appreciate the transformative power of suffering.

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