Archive for life

There is a gift in the pain

There is a gift in pain.

When we think of gifts, we think of wonderful surprises that bring us joy and happiness. There is the wide-eyed delight on a child’s face as they open the biggest present under the Christmas tree. We think of the love on a parent’s face as they hold their newborn for the first time. There is the look of joy on the faces of two people as they pledge themselves to each other for life.

When I grow up…

When we were children, we thought that everything would be great ‘when we grow up’. We could get to be whatever we wanted to be…when I grow up I’m going to be a pilot/ a model/ a nurse, a fireman. Children believe that, as adults, they will be able to make all the decisions, and do whatever they want to do. That no-one would tell them what to do. And that life would be wonderful.

But then, children grow up and discover that it aint so!

We found out that life could deal us blows that we never dreamed of. People discover that life can rob them of the things most precious to them. We realise that even with our best efforts, life does not necessarily turn out the way we planned, or the way we’d like it to. Sadly, for some people, that realisation comes early, in childhood, at the hands of people they trusted.

And nobody, nobody, ever told us that life would bring pain.

Burying pain

Whether it’s physical pain, mental pain or emotional pain, the dominant message we receive via culture and advertising is to anesthetise.

Dull the pain.

Take the edge off.

Bury the pain.

Ignore it.

Work through it.

Push through the pain.

Pain is seen as a barrier in life, a barrier to living the wonderful ‘when I grow up’ fantasy life that we continue to believe is reality. Pain is seen as a negative, as something intrinsically bad or wrong, something that gets in the way of living the fulfilled wonderful life of our childhood dreams.

Pain is normal

But what if we choose to see pain as a normal part of life? Because it is!

Pain comes to us all.

What if we accepted that as a reality and then when pain comes, when the difficulties of life arise, we are much less surprised and much more able to see the pain for what it is – a normal part of life and a bringer of unique gifts.

Could pain be a gift?

We usually don’t see the pain, that accompanies difficult life events, as a gift because we are addicted to life being wonderful. We don’t see abuse, or miscarriage, or death, or divorce or poverty, as gifts. And in themselves they are not things that we attract or welcome into our lives. They are painful parts of the human experience. Common parts of the human experience. But could they be gifts to us? Could the difficult, terrible, awful things that happen to every human being also be gifts?

Could there be a gift in the pain we experience? My answer is, of course, yes!

What is the gift in pain?

The people who have faced pain and difficulty, huge difficulty, and come out the other side will tell you that they wouldn’t change a thing. They will tell you that the divorce, the loss of legs, or any one of many versions of life’s difficulties, was the one thing that changed them and shaped them and made them who they are today. And they wouldn’t change their life experience. Some even say that the difficulty is the best thing that has happened to them. (Joel Scott’s story is just one of many.)

How can that possibly be?

They have found the gift that pain brings.

They have discovered the resilience, strength, compassion, self-awareness, character, values, love, courage…any one of numerous qualities that are both birthed and developed in the difficulties of life.

They have found the gift in the pain.

The gift does not negate the pain

I want to be clear. Finding the gift in the pain is not another form of anesthetising yourself to the pain. I am in no way discounting the depth or intensity of pain that people feel in life’s difficulties, nor am I approving of the pain that human beings willingly inflict on each other.

The pain is real, and it often lasts for years.

But, if we could accept that pain is a part of life – necessary for our development as human beings – when pain comes to us perhaps we could view it differently.

There is a gift in the pain

When pain comes, as it inevitably does – more than once in any lifetime – we could allow ourselves to really feel it. We could allow ourselves to sit with the grief that accompanies loss. We could allow ourselves to be angry and frustrated with how things have changed. We could honour all that we feel in the face of life’s hard times.

And by doing this, we allow ourselves – and others – to be fully human. Flawed hurting human beings. People who love and lose. We accept pain and difficulty as normal. We even embrace the difficult times knowing that in them we discover something very precious. We discover a depth to ourselves that we never knew existed. We discover that we are more flawed than we like to think – and that’s okay. We discover that we really are wonderful in our brokenness in a way we ever dreamed possible.

We discover that there is a gift in the pain.

Has this been your experience? Do you know how to find the gift in the pain that you’ve experienced?

My Six Pillars of Thriving is one way to start looking at what you can do with the pain of your life. If you’d like a free PDF copy, just fill in your details below and it’ll wing its way to your inbox.

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Leaving the Water

Just like the fish in the ancient Chinese proverb, ‘A fish is the last one to know what water is’, everyone has ‘water’ that they swim in – an unconscious understanding of life and the world which shapes and colours all that we do, think and say.

This ‘water’ is a combination of the culture we grew up in, the sub-section of that culture that our family was part of and the distinctive understandings of life that are important to our particular family. For me, my culture was white Australian, the sub-section was conservative middle-class Christian and my family was a strong, self-contained but somewhat isolated unit (I have no cousins and only met some second cousins in mid-life).

Just like the fish in its own bowl of water, I swam in my ‘water’ quite oblivious to its reality and its impacts on my understanding of the world. This ‘water’ had been the norm for me since birth and I rarely questioned its validity or the subtle effect it had on my outlook – not until I went to Nauru.

Being immersed in a culture other than my own, mixing with people from many nations (The Salvation Army team consisted of people from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, US, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Vietnam and Nauru), hearing so many different languages swirl around me, and working with staff of different faiths (Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, atheist) opened my mind and heart to ways of looking at life that were different, and yet still similar, to my own.

When I returned to my ‘water’ at the end of the contract and took time to reflect on all I’d experienced, I began to reassess. I could now see the ‘water’ I’d been swimming in all my life and recognise its impact (fear and a sense of superiority).

I now had a decision to make.

My ‘water’ was real, its impact on my life was real, but I was no longer completely happy swimming in that ‘water’. There were aspects to my life that I saw needed to change.

And I had a choice.

I could be like the fish and continue to swim in this ‘water’ of my culture, faith and upbringing, without questioning how healthy it was. Or I could be like a tadpole, which also begins life in water but which, as it matures, grows into a frog and leaves the water behind.

I chose to be a frog.

I was thankful for much that my ‘water’ had given me, but I knew that it was no longer a healthy place for me to live. I knew there were other ways of looking at life and other cultural understandings which were as valid as my own. There were other stories that I needed to listen to and explore.

So I chose to be a frog and leave the ‘water’ behind.


What's your water?

There’s an old Chinese proverb which says: a fish is the last one to know what water is. The idea is that all of us have unconscious understandings of the world based on our cultural and racial heritage which influence what we do, the decisions we make and the attitudes we hold.

I’m a child of the 60s and a teenager of the 70s. I grew up in conservative, white, middle-class, Protestant Bible-belt Australia.

Fast-forward to 2012.

I’m a single-again mid-life woman working with The Salvation Army when it is awarded a contract by the Australian Government to provide welfare services for asylum seekers in the newly-reopened off-shore detention and processing centres on the Republic of Nauru and Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea.) I volunteered for a four-week rotation on Nauru, not because I had a burning desire to work with asylum seekers, not because I wanted to work in a developing nation, and definitely not because I wanted to work in the tropics.

I volunteered because I couldn’t think of any reason why not to.

After catching the red-eye from Brisbane, Australia, with 80 or so others, I stepped out into the tropical heat wondered what I’d got myself into. After a full day of orientation, and having been up for over 24 hours, the last item on the day’s agenda was to check out ‘the camp’ where the 400 or so men were being housed in green army tents. As my group walked between the rows of tents and I watched the men sitting on their stretchers or talking to each other. Some looked at us with vague interest, but mostly we were ignored. However, I became aware of feeling afraid.

As I reflected on that feeling of fear and realised that it had no physical basis I saw that this fear was solely based on ‘otherness’.

These men were ‘other’ to me: other nationalities, other faiths, other languages. What was shocking for me was to realise that in me was a latent racism based purely on the homogenous ‘water’ of my childhood and upbringing. I had always said I didn’t have a racist bone in my body – I now knew that this was untrue.

Some months later, I discovered some more about my personal ‘water’. I was a white university-educated Aussie, working in a facility run by Australians with a team of Nauruans providing support services, as teacher’s aides, running the canteen, being part of the welfare team. There was little collaboration by the Aussie leadership with the Nauruans and the longer I was there, the more I became aware of sense of superiority that characterised the interactions between Aussies and Nauruans – including my own.

I spoke of my burgeoning understanding of this superiority I felt to the woman leading the Nauruan team. Her comment was that the Nauruans felt it too but just knew this was the way we were. I was appalled.

On returning to Australia when the contract ended I took a good look at myself and my life. I started asking questions and talking to people about what I’d learnt about myself. I discovered that there was name for that combination of fear and superiority that people like me felt when confronted with difference – white privilege.

That was my ‘water’ and it impacted all my interactions with others and especially those who were different to me.

Owning our stories

One of the most interesting parts of a teacher’s day, especially with young children, is ‘news’ time or ‘show and tell’. As well as finding out about what sport children played on the weekend, what new thing they’d discovered in the garden, certain family secrets came to light. Stories were told that the adults in the child’s family would have been embarrassed to know had been broadcast, even to such a small an audience.

Another aspect of a teacher’s experience is when children ‘dob’ on each other, telling stories of what someone did or said. It was often a laborious part of my day as a teacher trying to get to the bottom of stories, to uncover the ‘truth’, because the ‘truth’ of these stories varied with whoever was doing the telling!

As we look back over our lives, we can see many different stories. Some are ones we cherish because they brought joy or beauty to our lives. Some parts of our story are sad or hurtful and continue to haunt us. Some parts of our story we wish had not happened at all.

Now for a little self-disclosure: I’m divorced.

Divorce was not on my bucket list. Being single, after the initial teens and twenties angst, was not part of the plan. But there it is.

For a long time, I found it difficult to admit that divorce was part of my life story – I knew it was but didn’t really like to talk about it. That is until I read a quote by Brené Brown.

This American scholar, author and public speaker writes that ‘…loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest things we can do’.

Brave? Own my story? These two thoughts really resonated.

So I wrote down various aspects of my life story, focusing on the things that still brought me shame or sadness. Wrote them down, read them out loud…and then tossed the paper they were written on away.

I needed to hear myself admit, to myself, that certain things were part of my story. They didn’t happen to someone else – they were mine. And once I’d ‘owned’ them, they no longer had to power to hurt.

Those personal backstories…we all have them, they impact us all in different ways.

But if we can own them then they don’t have the power to own us.

The past is the past. Let’s own it for what it is…and find power for the present.

Going to the movies

When my dad was young, he’d ride his bike down to the local cinema on a Saturday afternoon and watch two movies for a penny.

As a kid, I repeated this Saturday afternoon ritual, but rather than watching a movie at the flicks I’d bunker down on the lounge room floor and watch movies on TV with Dad.

We watched anything and everything – westerns, comedy, drama, war movies, musicals, even some sci fi. Jimmy Stewart, Charleton Heston, John Wayne, Doris Day, Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby, Rock Hudson, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, A grade, B grade…we watched the lot.

When my sons were younger, this movie-watching tradition continued, but this time it was back at the cinema watching G and PG-rated movies together, and then buying the videos (and later DVDs) so that lines from movies became a part of our family conversations.

I still watch movies and love Cate Blanchett, Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Emma Stone, Morgan Freeman, Brendan Fraser and Keanu Reeves.

It is no surprise then that my consultancy would take its theme and focus from the movie world – Backstory.

Merriam-Webster define backstory as ‘a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot as of a film)’, while Oxford adds that it is ‘a history or background created for a fictional character in a film or television program’.

Backstory is the behind-the-scenes information which impacts how characters behave and think and often determines how the plot unfolds. For the most part, the backstory is hidden or may only be partially disclosed as the story develops.

It’s not just fictional characters that have a backstory.

Each individual has a backstory. Every business or community group has a backstory. Nations have backstories.

The thing about a backstory is that it can impact both positively and negatively in the present.

The key is to know what our backstory is, to acknowledge its power and then to work with it to grow and develop.