Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a [woman] is what you do when that storm comes. - Alexandre Dumas.
In a small apartment in New York City, a young couple exchanges vows while their family and friends watch through the tiny lens of a laptop camera. There’s no five-layer cake with buttercream frosting. No dance floor lit up by hanging bulbs from above. No cheering crowd waving sparklers as the lovebirds set off on a honeymoon in Hawaii.
In Illinois, a man camps outside the hospital where his wife has just given birth to their son. He’s brought food from her favorite restaurant for “date night.” They eat together, regardless of the four floors and walls that separate them. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to hold their baby boy for the first time, due to COVID restrictions.
In Los Angeles, an immigrant shuts the doors of her small business for good, the business she spent a decade working toward and a lifetime of savings on. She’s just one of tens of thousands crippled by the loss of income in the face of government-enforced lockdowns. There will be no government bailout for her and her industry. No assistance from the big banks who prioritized large restaurant chains and institutions when handing out SBA loans.
In Massachusetts, a college student sits in her living room beside her parents watching her virtual graduation. There’s no stage to walk across as her sister did before her. No crowd of friends to throw her hat up in triumph with. For this student, and thousands of others, four years of grueling work has come to an anticlimactic end. In the months that follow, she’ll struggle to find a job in an economy beset by the worst unemployment rates since the Great Depression.
In Idaho, teenage girls sob softly in their cars outside a church where a funeral is taking place for their 15-year-old friend. They can’t go inside because of state-mandated limits on gatherings. They watch from a distance as the casket is placed in the back of a limousine by cousins and uncles. In the days that follow, they’ll go to her grave and place flowers, rain or shine.
A Year of Questions
2020 has come to represent a year of loss — canceled plans, missed experiences, forced time away from family and friends, lost income, and for some, the death of a loved one. Everyone has lost something or someone important to them. We’re all suffering a personal pain and carrying private burdens.
It’s like we’ve been tossed and turned, pounded by one crushing wave after another, only to wash up on a desolate shore. Cold, wet, and alone. What can possibly get us through this? We’ve read enough messages from corporations and brands telling us they care. We’ve seen enough commercials that attempt to sell empathetically, with the overused and somehow aggravating opener: “During these unprecedented times…”
We watch as these messages pass by us, like little airplanes flying promotional banners across a stormy sky as we wait on the lonely beach, wondering if the momentary calm means the storm has passed, or if we’re simply in the eye of it.
But instead of asking ourselves when will this be over, perhaps we should be asking ourselves, “Can we come out the other end in a better place? Is there any silver lining?” I would say yes. Yes, there is.
Hard Times Test Our Courage and Our Perseverance
We’re seeing how little control we have over our lives right now, which is terrifying. We’re living in an environment of unknowns. And it’s this uncertainty that alarms us. We’re afraid of the unknown, of the uncertain. If we don’t know it, then we can’t control it. We can’t grapple with it. We can’t fix it. We can’t move forward. And so we feel trapped. Powerless in the face of such chaos.
So what can we do?
We can focus on doing our best to be responsible for ourselves, our family, and our community. We can focus on doing the next right thing that we’re able to do. Like sea captains navigating a storm in search of land, we make the most prudent decisions we can to make the best of the situation.
Suffering Makes Us Ask “Who Am I?”
It’s in times like these — times of pain, loss, confusion, anger — when our character is paradoxically both shaped and proven. Like the heroine of your own story, your actions under dire circumstances are what define you. What will you do with your strengths? With your weaknesses?
The difficult times reveal our strengths — sometimes even qualities we didn’t know we had — but they also show us where we need to grow. We can be sources of strength, compassion, and encouragement for those around us, but we also need to learn to be vulnerable and ask for help. We’re patient and hopeful, but we also need to learn to allow others to bolster our hope and patience when they wear thin. We can lovingly take care of those around us, but we also need to learn when to care for ourselves so we can stay healthy, too.
It’s this double quality of hard times to reveal both the strong and the weak that’s a blessing in disguise because all self-knowledge is helpful. When we know our weaknesses, then we can begin to address them. It doesn’t feel pleasant in the moment, but when you can look back on the growth you’ve achieved, it gives the suffering you endured meaning.
Suffering Makes Us Ask “What’s Important to Me?”
Suffering also challenges our faithfulness to our beliefs and our priorities. Are we really who we say we are? Do we really believe what we say we believe? Are our priorities really what we thought they were? Hardship is beneficial for forcing us to reassess our life, our direction, our choices, and our beliefs. It pares away the unnecessary and the superficial to leave us with the important, the essential, and the enduring.
As a result, we’re rediscovering the importance of our relationships with our families, our parents, our friends, and our neighbors. And we’re realizing that completing that project for work maybe isn’t as urgent as we thought it was.
We’re rediscovering the peace and beauty of nature. And we’re realizing that we don’t need designer clothes and perfectly manicured nails to make us feel content. We’re re-experiencing our joy in and gratitude for simple pleasures, like good coffee, deep conversations, and baking bread. And we’re realizing that Netflix and social media can only distract us from our lives at best and distress us at the worst.
We’re reflecting on what it means to live a meaningful life. And we’re shedding the unnecessary distractions and burdens. We’re recentering and regrounding ourselves. Years from now, when you’re old and gray and sitting in a rocking chair thinking back on your life, is the direction you're heading in one that you will ultimately be proud of? Or will you look back with regret on the path you wish you had taken, but didn’t?
So I would encourage you not to let this time of trial go to waste. Learn about yourself. Lean into your strengths and start addressing your weaknesses. Reflect on what’s important to you and choose to keep those things at the top of your priority list. Make the most of your relationships. Take a walk and appreciate the beauty around you. Do a kind deed for someone, and remember that when dealing with angry people, they’re probably stressed and afraid. Express gratitude for a kindness done to you. This is how you give your suffering meaning. This is how you come out a better person on the other side.
Suffering Can Reveal Our Purpose and Teach Us Empathy
When we suffer, we enter into a universal human experience. Everyone will suffer in their life. It’s inescapable. And when we’re faced with suffering, we can react to it in different ways. We can let it make us bitter, angry, resentful, and hateful. Or we can learn from it — learn about ourselves and learn how to empathize with the pain of others. Like the opening stories show, everyone is going through hard times, regardless of if they seem big or small. They’re all valid. When we can acknowledge the pain of others, we can help share their burdens.
Trials also have a way of mysteriously guiding us to our purpose. We want to have a purpose, and we want our suffering to feel purposeful because that makes it easier to bear. But we can usually only see the purpose of our suffering after the fact.
Our hard times motivate us to learn, to overcome, to heal, to solve problems — and then to pass that wisdom on to others. Sometimes it’s as small as being able to commiserate with and support someone who confides in you because you’ve been there. You actually know. Sometimes it’s as big as starting a foundation to educate and support others. Whether it’s a conversation or an institution, these moments are imbued with purpose — a purpose only possible because you suffered and you overcame.
We shouldn’t wait for things to return to normalcy for us to live good and meaningful lives. What makes our lives good and meaningful is not the circumstances that surround our lives, but how we choose to live when the circumstances are anything but good.