I recently read a beautiful article in The New York Times about the value of suffering, and it reinforced the most important lessons I've learned from my own suffering.
If you've been reading my blog for a while, you probably know that shortly after getting married, I contracted Lyme disease and my life was interrupted by ongoing physical pain. Constant pain lead to a deep depression riddled with severe anxiety. Lyme disease is very complicated and difficult to treat. I was so consumed by the uncertainty of when/if I would get better, and was so wrapped up in the physical pain that I couldn't open my eyes and see past it to the blessing in disguise that I truly (now) believe it to be.
So how can suffering be a blessing?
Well when you're sick, you never realize how good you had it. In the aftermath of my struggle with Lyme disease, I wake up every day with a deep sense of gratitude for the most simple of things. For being able to painlessly get out of bed. For the ability to walk without limping. For my sense of hearing, which is no longer impaired by a loud ringing sound. Before the Lyme disease, gratitude just wasn't as much a part of my daily life. I let little things ruin my day. I had this "poor me" mentality about everything - someone cutting me off in traffic, the barista getting my drink wrong, my boss yelling at me - I had a constant chip on my shoulder. Later, in the most trying time of my battle with Lyme disease, I would've given anything to have the opportunity to be stuck in traffic, or the ability to drive to a Starbucks or be at work. I would've welcomed the worst bad day ever if I could just have my health back. I've learned that the gratitude I now have for the little things sets the foundation for a good day, and I've got a whole new outlook. That poor me mentality is gone.
My experience with Lyme disease also opened my eyes to our human interconnectedness. One day, I had to go into New York to see a specialist. At this point, I was struggling to walk. As I limped down the sidewalk at a painfully slow pace, people would blow past me, grumbling, annoyed that I was slowing them down. I felt awful. Empty and sad. One small smile would've brightened my day. The real kicker is that I used to be that person. Always in a rush. Too busy to offer a smile. Easily annoyed by the person in front of me whose uneven gait was slowing me down. And now, I understand. I understand the importance of extending compassion, of the power of even the smallest sign of encouragement or acknowledgement. My suffering awakened in me a deep sense of compassion for what others are experiencing. And everyone is experiencing something, even if it's not physically noticeable.
There were so many lessons from my illness, but the one I am happiest to learn is about taking chances. I'm grateful for having a life filled with travel- at 16 I was a foreign exchange student in Costa Rica, and at 18 an au pair for a short time in Geneva. From there, I lived in London for a bit, and traveled around Europe. I fell in love with learning languages, and experiencing new cultures. But in my early 20s, that love affair ended when I developed severe anxiety after a series of deaths in the family. Instead of wanting to see the world, I wanted to stay close to home where everything was familiar. Never mind taking a plane across an ocean, there were now days when anxiety would hinder me from trying anything new - between job interviews and social events, I missed so many potentially life-changing opportunities. Then the Lyme disease hit. And when not taking chances was no longer a choice I got to make since the physical pain did it for me, I suddenly realized how badly I wanted to travel and do things I wouldn't normally do. I learned that I needed to let go of the anxieties, of the worries, of the fear. To take opportunities as they present themselves, and to live each day with intention.
Obviously suffering doesn't always mean illness. I believe that whatever causes you to suffer, whether it's getting laid off, having relationship trouble or financial trouble- whatever it is can be studied a little more carefully to find a deeper lesson. And learning that lesson will help you to emerge on the other side of adversity with a new sense of being and outlook on life.