Is Life’s Greatest Gift, Suffering?
“Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms, you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Elizabeth highlights a profound point.
Suffering can bring us beauty. The beauty of healing, which can lead to self-actualization. It can set us on a path to self-fulfillment. Suffering can bring us strength — strength and the resolve to withstand similar hardships through personal experience. Suffering can bring us wisdom, clarity, and so much more.
Should we think about suffering differently? Should we take brief moments during our most enduring times and appreciate it…if we can?
Several years ago, I met a homeless man named Cody in Columbus, Georgia. I was filling up my Xterra with gas on my way to work, and Cody approached me for change. Now, this wasn’t the best neighborhood, so I was reluctant to even converse with him. But, for some reason, Cody seemed non-threatening. He was a middle-aged man of small stature. He seemed decently dressed — he didn't fit the mold of your typical homeless person, whatever that looks like. He just wanted any change I could spare.
He said he was embarrassed to ask, but he was going through a hard time at the moment.
After grabbing some change from the car, I struck up a conversation with him while filling up. I ended up being late for work because I talked to Cody at the pump for about an hour. Cody’s life story is rife with tragedy, albeit some due to his own doing. Nonetheless, he and his family had been through a rough time over the past couple of years.
What was puzzling to me was Cody had a great attitude. He had a smile on his face the entire time we talked. His renewed attitude was a result of getting approved government housing for his family. He was in the process of getting them moved into the new housing unit the following week. He told me he felt like he was finally able to provide for his family. His wife and two children left to live with their grandmother for the past year for stability, but they were finally able to come together as a family again.
Cody told me that he fell into a deep depression a year ago and tried to commit suicide. He felt worthless. The inability to find a job or provide for his family was literally killing him. When his wife and kids left to live with their grandmother, he felt isolated.
After falling behind on bills, he lost his car and house.
Cody was a diesel mechanic and other various “duties” needed by the company he worked for. He seemed like a jack of all trades. He worked for a company in a small town 30 minutes from Columbus, Georgia, that built liquid storage tanks. He worked for them for over 15 years.
He was let-go (I didn’t ask him why) and couldn’t find a job over the past year because there were no job opportunities in the town he just left. He eventually was able to get to Columbus for more opportunities for work. Along with getting his family to Columbus to move into government housing, he told me he had a job lined up as well. He said he finally feels things are lining up, and he’s excited about the future.
I asked him, despite what he has gone through in the last year, why does he seem so happy?
He told me he feels like this is a reset. Being homeless and surviving suicide attempts has given him perspective.
Suffering can bring us beauty.
He said he cherishes every moment — that life is precious. He said his purpose in life now is to provide an environment conducive to raising his children to thrive. He said he used to hang out with the wrong people from work, do drugs, and spend his money on things that didn't matter — an expensive truck and a boat, for instance.
He said he feels like a burden has been lifted. He’s in a new town away from his old influences with a new chance to make things right in his life.
Man, that really inspired me. I have to say that day was a good day.
I couldn’t help but think about how his suffering changed him for the better. It gave him a new perspective. His experiences shifted what he thought was important in life. That's when I started to reflect on how my suffering shaped my life story as well.
Before joining the military, my upbringing was rough. I had absent parents. I don’t have memories of my mother until I met her in my mid-twenties. I lived with my father. At times, we were homeless. I really didn’t have a stable home and was abandoned by my father with a stranger at 14.
This affected everything in my life — my relationship with my family, friends, work…everything. It was hard to love or trust anybody. It took me until my mid-thirties to overcome the issues this caused.
Abandonment, especially by your parents, can profoundly alter your life in ways you can’t imagine. Luckily for me, I was able to take those experiences and use them for positive growth. It took some family support and therapy, but I’m happy to say I’m doing great.
I can’t say the same for other people who have traveled a similar path.
For a long time, I didn’t know how to love or express my feelings. I also had zero confidence in myself until I joined the military. But, once I was able to overcome this, I gained a different perspective on pain. I was able to become an empath. I used those painful experiences to connect with people and help them chart a path forward.
Once I joined the Army and met my wife, my life began to change for the better.
Choosing to join the Army in 2001 was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Aside from marrying my wife and having my kids, of course. It’s been a hard life, but it’s made me who I am. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has defined my career — my entire career, our country has been in a state of war.
War can break someone’s spirit. War can destroy someone’s humanity…if you let it. I’ve seen war lead to Post-Traumatic-Stress disorder, depression, and suicide for many of my comrades. It leaves an indelible mark.
For some reason, I was more resilient than most. Seeing war, experiencing war, and everything that comes with it — death, suffering, strife — I seemed to manage it well. I attributed it to my rough upbringing. I had to be a tough kid. I had to take care of myself a lot of the time.
I’ve also seen how war experiences — and non-war experiences — shape people for the better. This was the case for me. Although my experiences in the military have shaped me for the better, I have had to suffer several unfortunate effects of military service: long periods away from family, the physical toll on my body, seeing my comrades suffer from the darkness of depression, PTSD, suicide, and long days training for the next deployment.
Along with periods of war, just the requirements inherent in my job are very demanding. I’m an infantry Soldier, so physical training and working in austere conditions come with the job. We would conduct foot-marches with 30–45 pound packs in upwards of 20 miles.
Typically our foot marches are no longer than 12 miles, but it takes a toll on your knees and backs nonetheless. While deployed, we may be carrying twice as much in temperatures ranging from 100–115 degrees in Iraq or Afghanistan while on patrol. It’s prevalent for Soldiers to separate from the service with an array of physical conditions, including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), knee, back, or ankle problems.
I completed Ranger School, one of the most difficult leadership schools in the military. Conducting patrols in the Georgia woods or swamps of Florida with an hour of sleep is probably a great way to define suffering. Completing Ranger School is really the thesis of this piece. I suffered and became better because of it.
The sacrifices I’ve made to serve my country has taught me a lot about life. It’s taught me how to be a better husband, father, and leader. The third-world-countries I’ve visited, the different cultures I experienced, and the differing worldviews also have destroyed bias and stereotypes. Despite the people of these countries suffering from the effects of war, most seemed happy.
The “suffering” I experienced in the military, while seemingly unbearable at times, changed me for the better in the end. While serving, I found that I could help other people overcome their struggles, depression, and help with their confidence.
Now, I’ve served in the Army for 20 years and been married for 16 years. I now have four beautiful children. Somehow, I came out on top. I’m good at what I do, I develop leaders, and I love training others to be better leaders or do their job better.
I feel fulfilled.
Let's not forget the “Voluntary” suffering I’ve decided to experience for some stupid reason — 50-mile ultra marathons, 261-mile bike races, marathons, and ironman triathlons. I guess suffering in the military wasn't enough!
Despite the suffering I’ve experienced in my life, it’s cultivated growth. It’s allowed me to have perspective and help others along their path.
Here’s what I learned about suffering.
1. Suffering Made Me Wiser
You don’t know what you don’t know. This is why we need people, particularly our family, friends, or mentors, to show us the way. One of the most important things I’ve learned over the course of my life is you can’t be afraid to ask for help.
You have family, friends, and organizations out there that are willing and waiting to help you when you need it most. Whether it’s food, housing, depression, or financial help, don’t let pride inhibit you from asking for help.
For the longest time, I was afraid of what people thought of me, especially when it came to depression. There is a stigma attached to it, but you can become an advocate and help others through their journey if you can overcome it. You realize it makes you resilient and stronger. That it's usually fleeting — at least from my experiences.
Advice? Ask for help. Reach out to your family, friends, and non-profit organizations if you need to — maybe your local church groups if you have one. That's what we're here for…to help you in the rough times.
2. It Made Me More Resilient
Most times, I’ve come out on the back end of any suffering moment stronger. Sometimes, I found strength I didn't even know I had. It’s shaped my mantra about life — “We’ll be fine.”
Sometimes my wife doesn't appreciate my “mantra” when she’s trying to vent to me. Ha Ha. The truth is, any challenge or hurdle our family has had to face, we’ve always found out how to endure it and find a workable solution.
My challenges helped me understand who I am more intimately — my strengths and weaknesses. I found my limitations, particularly during my physical endeavors.
Advice? Resilience starts with a change in mindset — a growth mindset. I tell myself this is only temporary. It will make us stronger as a family, or myself, if it's an individual endeavor. I rely on my support network to help me along my way. If you don't have a support network, ask for help.
3. Almost always, Suffering Was Temporary
Life ebbs and flows. We have times of crisis, times of happiness, and times of growth. It’s a pipe dream if you see some medium article on how to be “happy” all the time.
One of the most important skills to learn is overcoming periods of suffering by changing your mindset. But, to put suffering into perspective, I like to CREATE light at the end of the tunnel by keeping in mind that it’s temporary. Seasons of suffering come and go.
I realize, sometimes it’s not. Some people may have physically debilitating conditions they will suffer from their entire lives. But, some of these people are happy and fulfilled.
Advice? Create your light at the end of the tunnel by thinking positively. Positive self-talk is a great strategy. Think of all the things you’re learning that can be a value to somebody else. Share your story — you might inspire somebody. Tell yourself the moment in time will make you better, and it’s just temporary.
4. Suffering Resulted In Me Having Empathy For Others
I’ve noticed something interesting about people who suffer the most. They go down one of three paths.
- They become hostages. They can never overcome the pains of their past. It’s so debilitating it leads to their destruction. Some people experience suffering so deep that they can’t dig themselves out of the darkness. It either leads to their death or them never reaching their full potential in life. It remains a weight they continue to bear their entire lives.
- They become angry. They project their pain on others because they don’t know how to deal with it. Instead of hurting themselves, they hurt others.
- They help others. Some people learn from suffering and use their experience to help others by recognizing their suffering at the moment. Their pain enables them to have a visceral reaction to others who suffer. They become their advocates because they understand their journey. Sometimes the empathy they experience becomes compassion when they take action to alleviate someone else's suffering.
Advice? To demonstrate empathy for others, you have to be intuned with your feelings from your painful experiences. Think about how you felt during that time when you see others going through the same situation. Relate your experiences to theirs through shared feelings. Maybe, that empathy can turn into compassion.
5. It Changed My Perspective
My enduring moments made me realize that worrying about the small things in life is futile — they usually don’t matter. It’s also helped me appreciate the things I have in this life that we typically take for granted — a roof over my head, a steady job, first-world conveniences like running water and modern plumbing.
Being deployed to third-world-countries around the world, I’ve seen some families have had to travel 5 miles a day to get potable water…sometimes non-potable water. Other countries have open sewage, and non-existent modern trash systems — ditches along the road are where they drain their sewage and throw their trash.
I’ve recognized the importance of family and small moments in life, like my daughter's smile or compliments from my wife.
Advice? Take a moment to cherish moments that make you smile. Friends will come and go, but family will be your family forever. Appreciate the things you typically take for granted. When a great opportunity arises to travel to other countries to experience other cultures take it. You’ll be surprised that the suffering you experience on a day to day basis is nothing for those less fortunate.
It’s all about perspective.