On December 11, 2013, my wife’s life, and mine, were marked. My wife had been to the doctor, and she told me the week before that they had to run some more tests. I didn’t think too much of it, but I noticed she felt a bit uneasy about it when she told me.
The next week, we were standing outside in our front yard chatting as my wife was getting in the car to take my kids somewhere. Her cell phone rang, and she got out of the car to take the call. It was the physician calling to deliver the news of the test results.
I will never forget the next moment.
I watched her as she buckled over as if someone had punched her in the stomach. She had an expression on her face that I have never seen before. A look mixed with shock, fear and sadness. She then told me through tears, trying to keep herself composed for our kids who were in the car, that it was breast cancer.
A new level of suffering entered my life in a moment, and I am now on a new journey of coping with it, and hopefully, becoming a better person by suffering well.
The Fact of Suffering
We all suffer. It’s part of the human condition. Sometimes communities suffer together when there is a public or national tragedy, such as the events of 9/11. Sometimes organizations suffer together when tragedy strikes a beloved employee, or conflict tears apart what once was a compassionate workplace. At other times, people suffer through private pain. In some form, suffering touches each of us, and all our organizations. It affects both our personal life and our work life. Suffering is an equal opportunity employer, so to speak, and it doesn’t heed our attempts to segment our lives into neat compartments. When not dealt with well, it can negatively impact our well being and emotional vitality, and our organizations.
As one example of many, in addition to personal suffering, depression has been estimated to cost $83 billion annually, the majority of this cost being due to lost workplace productivity. Part of this is due to “presenteeism” (continuing to work when ill), which appears to be more costly than absenteeism.
If you’re not going through some form of suffering now, chances are someone close to you is. The first step in dealing with suffering is to come to grips with the myth we have come to believe about suffering.
THE MYTH ABOUT SUFFERING:
Suffering is something to be purged, side-stepped, or surgically removed from our lives. The best you can do is cope with suffering.
That’s the myth about suffering.
The question we often miss is this:
How do you suffer well?
Put differently, how do you grow through suffering? And related to that, how do you help your friends and co-workers who might be suffering right now? How do you have a positive impact in your workplace by helping those who are suffering to grow through it, and move toward flourishing.
How do leaders help employees and teams process organizational suffering?
THE TRUTH ABOUT SUFFERING:
It is possible to do better than merely cope with suffering. Suffering can help you grow as a person and a leader, but you have to engage in specific processes that facilitate growth.
In the rest of this post, I want to highlight what growth through suffering looks like and some of the lessons I’m learning. In my next post, I’ll address how to suffer well.
Growing Through Suffering
It is important to note that not everyone grows through suffering, and that suffering itself is not the cause of growth. Growth is the result of certain processes a person goes through with respect to suffering. While growth through suffering is not inevitable, it is possible, and we’re learning more and more from the people who experience it in the related fields of stress-related growth and post-traumatic growth. Jerry, for example, is a paraplegic man who experienced profound growth following the car accident that left him paralyzed. Here’s how he describes it:
“This was the one thing that happened in my life that I needed to have happen; it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. On the outside looking in that’s pretty hard to swallow, I’m sure, but hey, that’s the way I view it. If I hadn’t experienced this and lived through it, I likely wouldn’t be here today because my lifestyle previously—I was on a real self-destructive path. If I had it to do all over again, I would want it to happen the same way.”
When we listen to people like Jerry—who have grown through suffering—describe the changes, several themes emerge in three broad categories:
Changes in Philosophy OF Life
Changes Within the Self, and
Changes in Relationships
People often describe these changes as “wisdom.” Wisdom seems to be a central aspect of the growth that can occur through suffering.
8 ways suffering can help you grow
Here are eight positive changes I’m beginning to experience, and you can too if you courageously face your suffering.
Changed Philosophy of Life
1. A deeper appreciation for life.
This includes a deeper appreciation for the simple moments in everyday life and for relationships that are often taken for granted. An example of this: one morning, between treatments, my wife told me she was “grateful for the sweet ordinariness of everyday life.” Going through the experience of my wife having cancer has certainly given me a much deeper appreciation for life, and for living in the present. It has given me a desire to cherish my wife and kids every moment I can. I don’t know if my wife’s life will end up shorter than we both hope for, but I do know our lives are now richer for the experience of facing cancer together.
2. Positive change in priorities.
This often includes a renewed sense that time and relationships are precious. In addition, there is often a shift toward personally owning one’s values and priorities. My priorities in every aspect of life were immediately impacted by my wife’s cancer. Suddenly, it became clear that so many things in my life are really not that important. Mostly, these have to do with the achievements I strive for—to bolster my ego. I see with more clarity now that the most important thing in life is the impact I have on other people. It’s the love I give and receive in relating to people every day, and especially to those in my small corner of the universe—the people to whom I am particularly responsible. Time is not under my control, and I don’t want to waste it on trivial things. In the work domain, I have a renewed sense of urgency to focus with laser precision on things that matter, and on the areas where I can have the biggest positive impact. I experience this clarity as a gift. I don’t know how, or if, I could have attained it without going through this experience.
3. Renewed and strengthened spiritual vitality.
For many people, suffering initiates a spiritual search for significance. For some people this search ends with a decline in spiritual vitality. For many, however, the process of making sense of the suffering causes an initial decline in spirituality but eventually leads to a stronger spirituality. A stronger sense of spirituality can:
- Help people gain a sense of control over circumstances that feel uncontrollable
- Provide comfort
- Facilitate a stronger intimacy with God
- Help people find meaning in and through their suffering
You may not be spiritual or religious, but it’s important for you to make sense of your suffering; to find meaning and purpose in your suffering in the context of the ultimate questions of life. For me personally, processing through my wife’s cancer has led to a deeper trust in God. This hasn’t been a smooth process by any means, but it has strengthened my faith in God.
Changes Within the Self
4. Increased personal strength.
As people come through trials and suffering, they often find personal strength they didn’t know they had. Being pushed to the limit and coming out on the other side has a way of doing that. I never knew how I would respond to something like this. Would I freak out? Disengage from my family? Sadly, many men leave their wives after breast cancer. Well, now I know. Not that my response has been perfect by any stretch, but I know that my love for my wife has grown stronger, and that I can weather more storms of life than I thought.
5. Deeper appreciation of vulnerability.
I have realized through this experience that the reality of uncertainty is deeper than the illusion of certainty I used to live in. This realization brings a strange sense of peace. This experience has confronted me with my fundamental vulnerability and need for others. Friends and family brought us meals, flowers, plants, and took my wife to doctor’s appointments. We needed this. While not easy, I’m more at peace with my vulnerability now.
6. Acceptance of limitations.
I have realized even more deeply that I cannot control my emotions or my circumstances. I’ve known this in my head, and to some extent in my gut, but now it is more deeply engrained in my psyche. I am a limited human being. I cannot make cancer go away. I cannot “fix” all the problems that come my way. Less energy is taken up fighting against my limitations. They are there, and being more aware of them helps me to empathize with, and have compassion for others.
Changes in Relationships
7. Increased emotional expressiveness and self-disclosure.
In the wake of suffering, many people find themselves expressing their emotions in a more open way. This often strengthens relationships and social support as one becomes more willing to accept help. People experiencing suffering need to talk about their experiences. Their deeper appreciation of vulnerability in conjunction with this often leads to more self-disclosure, which also improves relationships.
This one has been difficult for me. One of my roles is that of therapist, so I’m trained and deeply oriented toward listening and not necessarily self-disclosing unless it is helpful to the other person. I imagine this is an occupational hazard. But as I have talked about my experiences with close friends, it has strengthened my relationships and made me more comfortable with my vulnerability. Part of becoming a loving person it to learn to receive love well. This experience has helped me to receive more fully.
8. Compassion, empathy, and intentionality in relationships.
Many people report a deeper sense compassion for people as a result of experiencing suffering. It’s also common for people to put more effort into relationships because of a new found clarity about how important they are.
The whole experience of my wife’s cancer has made me acutely sensitive and empathic toward others who are suffering. Recently, a friend called and told me about a serious illness his wife was experiencing. I was immediately cut to the heart and moved with compassion. I wanted to do something, anything, to help, because I know something of this pain. There were times when it would have been difficult for me to respond with compassion because I was lost in my own pain. This growth, again, doesn’t happen automatically. You have process your own pain enough to be able to focus on others in order to respond with compassion.
There are probably many other forms of wisdom that people gain from processing suffering, but these are a few common ones, and ones I have experienced in my recent journey.
In case you’re wondering, my wife finished almost a year’s worth of treatment (it was stage 2 breast cancer) right before Thanksgiving 2014. She is doing well and is now back to work. I believe this will be a life-long part of our journey with continued hard times, but also growth for which we are profoundly grateful.
I hope this helps you and your loved ones grow through suffering. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and your story of growing through suffering. Leave a comment here, or take the conversation to Twitter where you can find me at: @drtoddwhall.
Also, if you found this post helpful, I’d love for you to share it with your friends and family.
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 Tedeschi, R.G. & Calhoun, L.G. (1995). Trauma & Transformation: Growing in the Aftermath of Suffering, p. 1.