On Suffering, a Crappy Childhood, and Finding Meaning in Your Struggles

Having a bad childhood is not unusual. It’s what you do with it that matters.

Michael Ritoch
Oct 17 · 9 min read

A shitty childhood is not very original.

Having a horrible childhood is neither an original nor a unique experience.

The older I get, the more I realize dysfunction is the common denominator for most families.

Growing up, my family was more diss than fun in our dysfunction. We were hellbent on destruction rather than function.

My life was not one where I was chained to a toilet and made to drink piss water. We had no chains in the house. I don’t think my mother wanted me in the bathroom. What if she had to pee?

My parents were not that imaginative when they beat my siblings and me. Ours was the normal run-of-the-mill kind of abuse. They preferred the belt or its buckle, the fist, or even an extension cord.

Once my mother used a barbell to express her feelings for us. She came close to hitting me in the head, but stopped. I remember her smiling as she told me she almost sent me to God. She then started beating my sister again.

The Middle Finger

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Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

When I was four years old, my family moved to Spain. My father was in the military. We lived off base in a small town called Torrejón with other military families.

When I was five, I saw several older American boys flip off cars that passed them on the road. I went to my mother to asked what it meant to show the middle finger.

My mistake was walking into the room with my finger up before I asked my question. She grabbed her cigarette lighter and burnt my middle finger. “Flipping people off is bad,” she said. She must have forgotten I was five years old. After that day, I stopped asking her questions.

Two weeks later, my older brother flipped off the school bus driver. He learned the same way I did.

I cannot remember a day I was not hit so hard or so much I stopped seeing in color.

I remember watching in silence as my father punched my sister in the face because she called our mother ‘she’. Personal pronouns were a sin. Mom and Dad were mom and dad. Not he or she. Even today, when I am 54 years old, it is hard for me to refer to my parents as a ‘them, they, she, or he’. It feels wrong.

In a way, I am grateful for my childhood. It taught me what I did not want to be. It taught me how to suffer.

Socrates said wisdom begins with knowing what you know and do not know. I do not know much and would not call myself wise, but when I was five, I knew what I did not want. I did not want to be my parents.

Drama and heartache follow every life. There is always an abusive mom and father. Parents abandon their babies every day. Millions of children are bullied so much they want to hurt themselves. Hundreds of thousands suffer from drug and alcohol addiction. Children runaway. Sometimes, we have a sibling or child dying from cancer.

These and a thousand different tragedies happen more often than we care to admit.

We cannot escape our childhood. We cannot escape tragedy. If you have brown eyes, a big nose, and bowed legs, you have them forever. Pain, suffering, and tragedy are with us forever.

If you had a wonderful childhood, consider yourself blessed. Most of us were not so lucky.

The Story of the Twins

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Photo by Nikola Briede on Unsplash

When I was thirty years old and complaining about my life, a friend told me the story of two twin boys. The boys had no mother but an abusive father who gave them shitty childhood like me.

One twin became a drug addict and robbed a store. He was sent to prison.

The second twin went to college, got a job at a startup, and married the girl of his dreams. After a couple of years, they had two daughters. He volunteered at a homeless shelter and built homes in Mexico. He was even Man of the Year at his church.

Both men said their childhood was the reason they are the way they are.

My friend stopped and looked me in the eye. “My question, Mike, which twin do you choose to be?”

Some pain never leaves but you must find a way to live with it.

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Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

For me, the way to get over shitty parents, and the abuse they whipped into me, was forgiveness.

I wanted to yell and scream at my mother for beating me every day or touching me the way she did. More than anything, I hated the way she hurt my brothers and sister.

My mother died on my 30th birthday while I sat at her bedside. Next to me were my brothers, sister, father, and her best friend.

I always wanted to tell her off. To tell her how she hurt me. I never had the courage.

After my mother died, I told myself I would confront my father and tell him how he fucked up my life.

I didn’t do that either.

He lived 20 years after my mother died. I never told him off.

I forgave him after he passed.

My older brother said he was an unhappy man in the last ten years of his life. Like he carried a lot of guilt.

I understand guilt. It comes from my Spanish mother and being Catholic.

Forgiving my parents was only part of the battle.

I needed to forgive myself.

Once my father beat my older brother for an hour straight because his pupils were too big. His crying stayed with me for decades. I tried to do something, but I was too scared. That took the longest time to forgive.

I had to forgive myself for not understanding why my sister never wanted to be alone with my father. Or my mother.

It was hard to forgive myself for being too weak to stop my parents from hurting me or calling me useless and stupid.

But I did.

I needed to allow myself to not be that child anymore.

I needed forgiveness because I believed everything bad was my fault. It wasn’t.

When I did that, I forgave my parents. Of course, it was easy. They were dead.

We think we can only be one of the two twins. And maybe that is true.

Most of us act as if we have no choice in our fate. We act as if we are destined to be one twin or the other.

I have a friend who believes life fucked her over (her words) because she had the wrong parents.

I have another friend who grew up poor and used his poverty to make sure his children will never suffer as he did. That friend is rich, but he is also divorced, and his son died of a heroin overdose eight years ago.

We act as if our lives are either fucked up because our parents screwed us over or we succeed because we never want to live that sort of life again.

Sometimes it is both.

Trauma.

Suffering.

Pain.

We all have it. It is what we do with it that matters.

Khalil Gibran said our pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses our understanding.

Without pain, we cannot move forward. There is no understanding without pain.

The definition of life is pain.

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

But here’s the thing: life by definition is painful. There is always struggle and suffering. Life started that way and our lives will probably end that way.

“Life is suffering.”

— Buddha

The key to life is to choose the right causes and people. Find the right reason to struggle and suffer.

“Truth is everybody is going to hurt you: you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.”

— Bob Marley

Most of us choose to be the first twin. We allow the pain of a single event or the abuse from a handful of years to dictate who we will be for the rest of our lives.

We blame our failures on our childhood. The wrong parents. Wrong friends. We’re not rich enough or smart enough. We play the victim. It is easy to do that.

Find meaning in your suffering.

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Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering. — Friedrich Nietzsche

You have suffered or are still struggling. If you are to survive, you must bring meaning to your existence, to your pain.

Helen Keller was born blind and deaf. She became the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She wrote 12 books and many articles and advocated for women’s rights and racial equality. Hellen Keller was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The philosopher Epictetus was a slave for 30 years. His works changed many lives. Admiral James Stockdale credits Epictetus’s teachings for helping him survive eight years as a prisoner of war.

Both Helen Keller and Epictetus found meaning in their suffering. Their lives are an example of finding meaning in tragedy.

And me? The tragedy of my life made me a writer, sometime poet, leader, car salesman, recruiter, fundraiser, Man of the Year at my church, husband, father, and friend. Without that abuse, I would never have found the love of my life. My suffering led me to understand other people’s pain. I know what it means to go hungry or live in fear of your life.

The moral of the twins’ story is the moral of your life story.

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Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash

Find meaning in your pain. Do not allow your past suffering to define your future story. Choose to use your suffering and struggle as the reason you will not suffer anymore. Choose not to cause suffering in others.

Or as Tony Robbins put it:

Your past does not equal your future.

The first twin said his life was shitty so thereby he was a shitty person and should live a shitty life. He carried the trauma of childhood into every decision and transaction of his adult life. He took his pain and gave it to his children. A legacy for them to carry on.

He could not forgive his father or himself.

The pain of his childhood grew into guilt and became a reflection of his father.

The second twin remembered the pain of his childhood. Maybe he forgave his father. Maybe he didn’t. We do know he decided to find meaning in his suffering.

Are you dealing with the pain of a horrible past? Are you suffering? Have you fucked up so much it is hard to forgive yourself?

Everyone makes mistakes.

Many believe they are irredeemable. They believe their sins are unforgivable. They aren’t.

The question we need to ask ourselves is simple:

Are we the first twin or the second one?

I know my choice.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Thanks to Melissa Berdine

Michael Ritoch

Written by

Father and husband first. A thinker, writer, and sometime poet. Leadership and philosophy are my passions. — https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelritoch/

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 128,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Michael Ritoch

Written by

Father and husband first. A thinker, writer, and sometime poet. Leadership and philosophy are my passions. — https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelritoch/

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 128,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

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