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“Some things in life cannot be fixed; they can only be carried.”

― Megan Devine, author of It’s Ok that You’re Not Ok

I’ve spent many years trying to make sense of my psychological and circumstantial struggles, ever on the lookout for “signs” that would clue me in to the reason for it all — the spiritual rationale, the big “why.”  I felt this constant compulsion to attribute some bigger-picture, spiritual significance to all the things that tripped me up and knocked me down.

The search was painstaking, labor intensive and ultimately yielded nothing too convincing or satisfying. One day I was sure I was meant to suffer, the next I was convinced that my intended destiny was nothing short of stellar. Either way, whatever happened, it felt personal. And I took it personally. And then, of course, there was all the wasted time and energy spent searching for those ‘divine signs’ instead of working with the tools I had to improve my circumstances.

Trying to make meaning out of pain, is very different from trying to find some inherent meaning in it.

As much as I’ve wanted to attribute some divine purpose to my particular challenges, I ultimately could not fathom that the forces in the universe were orchestrating elaborate schemes to encourage each of us to learn specific, painful lessons. It just seemed an unlikely cosmic scenario, not to mention a disempowering perspective. After all, if everything that happens is preordained, then we are merely victims of fate, largely helpless and at the mercy of some very callous “powers-that-be.” Well…that’s not too motivating!

Rather, it seems to me that there are opportunities to make meaning where we can’t make sense – whether through our relationships, creative expression, the stories we tell, the way we engage with the world, what we say and what we give. Then too, are those universal life lessons we can take away from any hardship:

  • To be more aware of our inner workings, our words, our
    actions–their source and their impact.
  • To become more understanding and compassionate toward
    ourselves and others.
  • To become more deeply appreciative of the good we do have.
  • To keep giving ourselves opportunities to grow, even when it
    feels like a stretch.

Take the pandemic for instance… 

You’d be hard pressed to convince me that this pandemic has been anything other than senseless. Tragedy always is. So, what do we do with it? How do we position it in our minds, give it context, give it meaning? Because ultimately, that’s all we can do with tragedy – try to give it some meaning. These are some of the questions I asked myself to help me do that during the worst of the pandemic, and it really helped me gain some perspective.

When you reflect back on your own experience during the pandemic (or any other particularly challenging situation you’ve dealt with in the past or are currently dealing with), try to answer these questions and see what resonates most for you:

  • What stands out right now as having great value in your life?
  • What, if anything, have you identified as being harmful or just
    unhelpful in your life?
  • If you were to look back a year from now, how do you want to
    say you handled this crisis/situation?
  • What have you learned about your own coping mechanisms
    and strengths?
  • What insights have you had about the key relationships in
    your life?
  • If you were to redefine your life based on what you’ve learned
    during this time, what would that look like? Start with three
    adjectives that describe what you want your life to feel like
    going forward.

I’ve found that answering these questions gave me a context to better frame my experience. It also helped me change the way I talk to myself about it. So instead of “this is too much… how am I ever going to get through this?”, now it’s “this is so hard AND I am getting through it the best that I can.” You can also reassure yourself with a reminder of your strength, like “this is so tough, but I am strong enough to handle it.” It can also help to assert “I’m okay,” if it feels like there’s even a smidgen of truth in that statement.

Reframing your self-talk using more self-supporting language can be tough, especially if you’re in the midst of a crisis, but it really does help to keep your emotions manageable.

So here’s what I know

Whatever your spiritual beliefs, the bad stuff is not “meant to be.” Even if you’ve been convinced that your own burdens are divinely ordained, know that the only thing truly “meant to be” is that you use what you have – inside and outside of you – to heal and grow. Use it to better yourself and better the world in whatever way comes naturally to you. Period.

Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us — and those around us — more effectively. Look for the learning.

–Louisa May Alcott

Elizabeth Kemler
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Elizabeth Kemler is a seasoned curriculum designer, social entrepreneur, performer and mental health advocate. She has 25 years of experience supporting the development of clients’ communication skills, social-emotional competence, and mental health through dynamic programming, courses and wellness-based goods and services.

You can find Elizabeth's mental wellness courses here and visit her shop here.