“Believe that there is a purpose in your pain.” – Kay Warren
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism, called ‘Dukkha’, states that pain and dissatisfaction are part of being human. The world is never going to be perfect, and throughout our lives, we will encounter loss, sadness, injury, sickness, and death.
But, according to Buddha, even though life is not perfect, and will frequently fail to meet our expectations, we hold the key to our own liberation. While aging, sickness, and death are beyond our control, we can control our attachment to intended outcomes and desires.
I recently watched an interview of Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who exemplified this virtue. Hinton was wrongfully accused of murdering two teenagers in 1985 and was released after 30 years on death row. In his memoir, The Sun Does Shine, he provides a vivid and riveting account of the challenges he endured.
What I found fascinating about Hinton’s story is the remarkable courage and faith that he demonstrated. Since his pardon, he’s become an advocate for those facing the death penalty and fights for its abolishment in the United States. Even though Hinton lost his freedom through grave injustice, he realized he still had choices in life. He said:
“Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.”
Hinton acknowledges that pain, tragedy, and injustice happen to us all. He says, “I’d like to believe it’s what you choose to do after such an experience that matters the most – that truly changes your life forever.”
The kind of pain that we experience may not be as cataclysmic as Hinton’s, but that doesn’t diminish its importance and significance to our unique journey. According to Ainslie Macleod, author of The Instruction – Living the Life Your Soul Intended, our souls choose specific ‘investigations’ that will enhance our individual evolution and growth.
Macleod says that investigations are the soul’s way of developing self-empowerment. He says, “investigations can turn even the most unpleasant experience into an opportunity for growth. Once the self-empowerment kicks in, the investigation is turned on its head. It will then become all about healing the damage.”
Being aware that whatever you’re going through is part of your soul’s learning plan can help put things into perspective. Whether it’s heartbreak, betrayal, failure, unfairness, loss, or physical pain, every one of those experiences has within it a kernel of wisdom and insight.
While self-reflection is an essential part of turning pain into purpose, it isn’t enough on its own. No amount of therapy, spiritual practice, and affirmation can fully release you from the grips of a painful experience. The alchemy is finding ways to use your experiences to transform the lives of others. If it triggered something within you, you can be sure it will touch others as well.
However, it’s not easy to find meaning and purpose in the things that hurt you. Before you can unravel an inspiring story and feel good about sharing it with others, you must attend to your own needs first. Following these four steps will help you gradually turn your pain into purpose:
1. Forgive and let go: Buddha once said that forgiveness is a gift to yourself because it frees you from past experiences, and allows you to live in the present moment. If you’re finding it difficult to let go of the pain that someone has caused you, remember that forgiveness is a process – it happens in waves. Give yourself time and engage in self-care while you go through the stages. As long as you work on healing yourself, you’ll regain balance and find peace within.
2. Take time to reflect: Self-reflection is what helps us extract wisdom from our painful experiences. Writing in a journal about difficulties and upsets is an effective way to do it. Describe what happened, how it made you feel, and what you could have done differently to avoid it. In this way, you can use the experience to build character and take responsibility for your actions. You’ll also reframe the event so that it empowers you instead of embittering you.
3. Resist victim mentality: While going through the self-reflection process, you want to avoid sliding into the role of victim. If you’re not careful, you can get stuck in a perpetual loop of self-pity. In her book Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can, Caroline Myss coined the term “woundology” to describe anyone who defines themselves by their wounds. “These are people who have redefined their lives around their wounds and the process of accepting them. They are not working on getting beyond their wounds. In fact, they are stuck in their wounds.” If you’re stuck with victim-mentality, get the help that you need.
4. Use your experience to help others: The good news is that all of us can use our pain for good. Every painful experience can become a lesson from which other people can learn and grow. But, sharing our story does require courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. Knowing the positive impact that it could potentially have on people is the force that can push aside any hesitancy. An example of using pain to help others is parents starting a campaign to raise awareness for a disease after losing a child who died from it.
Like coal that has to withstand high pressure to become a diamond, we also have to go through difficulties so that we can emerge as the brightest version of ourselves. No matter what you go through, you have the power to use pain to become wiser, better, and stronger than you were before.
All my best on your journey,
Reflection Question: Would you consider yourself to be culturally intelligent? What steps are you willing to take to increase your cultural intelligence?
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