Mental health: Dealing with suffering

Sometimes when bad things happen to us, it not only hard to cope, but we also cannot understand why this is happening. If there has been a death, the ending of a relationship, job loss or injury, part of what we are faced with is the recognition that our lives are not turning out exactly as we’d planned.

This can be a devastating realization when our hopes and dreams have depended on certain fixed scenarios. It is a little like being a small child and finding that one year Santa simply didn’t show up. There is a sense of disillusionment, mixed with hurt, anger, sadness and even despair. Typically, people either blame something outside of themselves (fate, God, the economy, the doctors etc.) or else they tend to feel victimized, wondering “Why me?”

The feeling that they have been selected to suffer, or that there is some kind of intentionality working against them only adds to the pain. There are no little cosmic snipers up there just waiting to ruin our day. Nonetheless, devastating things still happen.

So if we want to maintain our sanity, we must, like the Olympic figure skaters, learn how to get up after the fall, and complete the program with dignity. Not easy. But the reality is that very few of us will be blessed with a perfect program.

This doesn’t mean that we should deny or suppress what we feel, for that is an important part of the healing. Instead, if we can recognize that each experience will bring learning and an opportunity for growth, and if we can remain open to looking for the gifts in each situation, then we don’t come away empty handed. Losses are real, and some are bigger than others, but we must find a way to overcome setbacks and fly even higher than we otherwise would have.

We saw skaters who missed an earlier jump throw in an unplanned triple near the end so they could make the best of the only time they had left. No matter what has happened up until this point in our lives, we still have time to make good things happen. They may not be the things we had in our original program, but in life we are free to improvise and change direction at any time.

The most influential factor in how well we will survive is our attitude to the past and to the future. We must accept that suffering is part of life, and we are not alone in our pain. Life is not unfair, but it is unpredictable.

Life is precious, even in sadness. So, take from the past what is good, and let it become fuel for the future.

Gwen Randall-Young is an Alberta author and award-winning psychologist.