Making Sense of Great Adversity

How becoming a teacher promotes healing and creates meaning.

Posted Jun 30, 2019

Caleb Frith/Unsplash
Finding meaning amid great adversity or challenge
Source: Caleb Frith/Unsplash

How can we make sense of the most challenging or adverse experiences of our lives? We teach about them.

Remember the times when most of your learning came from a teacher or textbook, intermixed with interactions on the playground? As we grew up, our experiences seemed to almost suddenly became more complex and multi-faceted, sometimes striking from seemingly out of nowhere with the swift kick of adversity.

Such a scenario is sadly too commonplace in our modern world, where we are attempting to process the incomprehensible: terrorism, inexplicable illness, and global political upheaval. Seated in those hard-hitting circumstances, it can be exponentially difficult to make sense out of what has happened or is happening.

Albert Einstein said in relation to Galileo’s Science, “Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality.”

While it is human to struggle to mentally process unfathomable circumstances or great personal challenge, it is also true that our greatest knowledge stems from experience...and in particular, the most trying experiences of our lives. For this reason and for the furtherance of humanity, we must endeavor to extract the valuable, teachable lessons that lie within our lived experiences.

Embracing Our Experiences

Within the journey of life’s peaks and valleys, we all have a unique composite of experience that only we can speak to. It is what has shaped our unique perspective and has given us an individual collection of knowledge.

In our everyday lives, we can quickly jump to share insight gained from a book, course or classroom, though we don’t as often think about teaching what we’ve learned through the course of our own lives. It is what we see motivational speakers doing every day–extracting the knowledge and wisdom from their experiences for the benefit of others–though many of us don’t consider that we too can do the same, even if we do not endeavor to speak on world stages.

Every single day, in every moment we experience, regardless of its high or low, we have at our hands a source of knowledge in our individual and collective experiences. Life is our classroom. While it is broader and more complex than the classrooms we knew as children, we can allow ourselves to have the same curiosity to learn and share, as we empower ourselves to navigate the pain of the incomprehensible.

Our lives are a self-directed study, guided by the power of choice. While we are not always consciously choosing the experiences that come our way or the lessons life is attempting to teach us, we always choose what we extract and learn from them.

It is each of us who ultimately decides the depth and scope of our studies. It is we who decide the level to which we take our experience and knowledge beyond ourselves and contribute it to others. And it is, therefore, we who determine the level of our own healing and the depth of meaning in our lives.

Extracting Meaning

Not every experience is going to make sense; not all lessons are going to be easily extractable. Our minds and hearts may never be able to process how a terrorist can kill innocent people, or illness can take the life of someone who did only good for the world. When we’ve given ourselves time to feel and heal, what we can do is create meaning, by choosing to transform our experiences into something of value for others.

We teach what we’ve learned.

Looking back at the most adverse or adventurous experiences of your life, ask yourself:

How was I different after the experience? What growth occurred from what I endured or pursued?

If I look through the pain or suffering, what aspect of human potential or strength becomes visible?

What part of my learning could be easily adapted by others and help them grow, heal, or ease their own pain?

Through books, speeches and conversations, leaders who have chosen to embrace and learn from their experiences are contributing their experiential knowledge to ease the way for others. However, you don’t have to be a professor, author, or speaker to share the valuable knowledge and insight you are intended to share with others. You need only make 3 key choices:

3 Choices to Maximize Your Innate Teaching and Mentoring Ability

  1. Be a Student, Always–Before we can be teachers, we must be students. The student in all of us is like the child in all of us–the endlessly curious part that ceaselessly asks questions. Embrace the opportunities for learning and growth that are always within your grasp. Allow something greater than your mind (faith, intuition, source, God) to guide you to answers that you didn’t even realize you were seeking. The more we learn, the more we have to teach; the more we teach, the more we learn. Roman philosopher Seneca said, “While we teach, we learn.” 19th-century French moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert said, “To teach is to learn twice.” This isn’t a radical theory, but rather a time-tested principle; and bringing our awareness to our innate capacity to be teachers and grow through teaching is invaluable. In the Time Magazine article, “The Protégé Effect,” author Annie Murphy Paul explain how scientists are documenting and modernizing the ancient theory that we learn while we teach. In relation to recent studies she states, “Students enlisted to tutor others, these researchers have found, work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively. In what scientists have dubbed ‘the protégé effect,’ student teachers score higher on tests than pupils who are learning only for their own sake.” At the University of Pennsylvania, a “cascading mentoring program” encourages college undergraduates to teach computer science to high school students, who in turn teach the knowledge to middle school students. The same format of the program has been used for medical students at Altitude, a healthcare mentoring program in Toronto. There, mentees are required to give back as mentors, sharing their knowledge and experience with new participants, who then pass the knowledge on to the youth in their community. One of the greatest benefits of the Altitude program was determined to be community connections. What is the root of the word communication? It is the Latin word communis, meaning “common.” To teach what we learn is to make it common, relatable and understandable–to give it meaning for both parties.
  2. Lead by Loving Your Experiences–Natural leaders trust their intuition or faith, drawing on knowledge and insight gained from past experiences to guide them as part of something bigger. They embrace experiences as teachers, knowing there is always something to be learned; and they contribute what they’ve learned to help ease the way for others. Their efficacy stems from the awareness of their experience and empathy in relation to the struggles of others. They want to be a guide who eases the way. In a CNBC article titled, “This is the No. 1 trait of great leaders, says a Wharton professor who’s studied thousands of executives,” Wharton Psychologist Adam Grant states that great leaders “Look, the most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed, to advance a vision or an idea or a project that is bigger than me, that’s going to affect a lot of people.” Success comes not only in business but also in thriving through every aspect of life. Each of us has the capacity (based on our unique composite of lived experience) to help others succeed through some aspect of life, no matter how big or small it may be.
  3. Create Meaning in Your Life–It is we who create the meaning of life. Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl founded Logotherapy based on the belief a lack of meaning causes mental health issues. His work lives on, in attempts to help others find meaning and solve their problems by redirecting “unhealthy attention” away from the problems we are trying to solve. This theory holds true when we teach what we’ve learned (or are learning) in order to heal and create meaning from our experiences. Meaning is the definition we give to our lives–what we decide we will stand for and contribute outward. Creating meaning from our experiences gives depth to our lives, it expands our “story” to move far beyond the potentially crippling nature of experiences that happened “to us,” lending to a sense of empowerment in how we are shaping our lives and bettering the lives of those we touch. Transforming our life’s experiences into valuable knowledge and insight for others is one of the most powerful choices for creating meaning. It is we who create the meaning in our lives through the value we offer. Being simultaneously the student and the teacher, we can embrace the lessons life has gifted us and use them as a foundation to ease the way for others. We gift value and create meaning through the extraction of lessons from our experiences, the transformation of problems into powerful practices others can adapt, and the development of experiential knowledge and insight to be shared. It begins by being an observer, of ourselves and of others. Grasp the valuable knowledge to be taken from even the most trying of circumstances and identify the audience who can benefit from that.

In the name of our own healing and ease-of-life, and that of others, we all need to share our unique value: the gifts, perspective, and knowledge that stem from our unique composite of experiences. Each one of us is intended to help others with a specific challenge or question: to offer a hand and walk them through the rocky unknown with a greater sense of confidence. It may begin with a single conversation, or it may extend to touching thousands of others. That destiny is ours to choose.

Making the choice to learn from our own experiences and from others’ experiences means that we are honoring and maximizing what we create of this opportunity called life. Whether the experience was a great adventure that built enthusiasm or great adversity that promoted empathy, we each have a duty to share. We are here for a reason, to contribute a certain unique value, and we can only grow together as humanity when we support each other in navigating this journey.

We don’t have to have it all figured out to share, to teach. Sometimes the middle of healing is the best place to begin sharing because in helping others through their pain or struggle, we discover how to do the same for ourselves. As world-renown leadership teacher, Simon Sinek says, “Helping people solve the problem you are struggling with actually helps you solve your problem.” This is the multi-faceted benefit of sharing what we have learned or are learning from our experiences.

How do you make sense of the most challenging or adverse experiences in your life? You do so by creating meaning, by teaching what you’ve learned.

Even when things don’t make sense, doesn’t mean we can’t create meaning from them. Einstein said, our experiences are our greatest teachers: the source of knowledge. Always in life, be a student and be a teacher. You have the capacity and opportunity to do both.