Several days ago, I came across a thought provoking quote (I know…I know…me and my quotes). I have mixed feelings about the quote – part of me wishes for what it’s saying, yet part of me disagrees completely.
“The New Age belief that we need pain to grow is one of the most harmful concepts we’ve been taught. It keeps people caught in perpetual cycles of abuse. We can learn and grow so much more with love. We just need to open to it.” – Alex Myles
Read that over a few times if you need to. I certainly did.
The idea of not needing adversity to grow and be molded into the person I am meant to be…well…it sounds too good to be true. If the world was able to get over itself – to see the futility in its constant cruelty – perhaps we would all be able to grow into ourselves based on the loving encouragement we receive from our family, friends, society, and world. Love and support go a long way to make us better people.
That being said, here is my problem with that statement: pain is part of life. Pain will never go away. Even if humans came together in love and embraced each other as never before, there would still be natural disasters, devastating health diagnoses, accidental and natural deaths, etc. My problem with that statement is in the fact that love does not make pain disappear, no matter how much we try. Sure, one might say that we need pain and love to foster growth and maturity, but I don’t agree that saying we need pain to grow is downright dangerous or harmful. We can’t have light without the dark.
The concept of growth through adversity is found in all walks of life, spiritual beliefs, and scientific research.
- Definition of resilience: “Recovering readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyant” (2019).
- The Bible instructs us to “consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you can become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1:2-4, MSG).
- The American Psychological Association on Post-traumatic growth: “Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a theory that…was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the mid-1990’s, and holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward” (Collier, 2016).
- Life Coach Tiffany Mason states, “Your adversity is a blessing in disguise. You may not think so at the moment, but it will eventually make you stronger and wiser” (2018).
- Psychiatrist Larry Culliford says of spiritual growth through adversity: “Stripped naked of all we hold dear, if we can somehow bring ourselves to submit rather than resist the inevitable, we may be forced – by the circumstances of having nothing else left – to make contact with our true selves; to get in touch, we might say, with our souls. When everything we try to hold onto is taken from us, we are left with something yet, something true and pure. We are left in the present, moment by moment, with conscious awareness: with physical sensation, with emotional feeling, and with the powers of thought, imagination and creativity. Through a spiritual kind of awareness, we may be left too with a source of calm, of courage, of inspiration and hope” (2011).
- Reflections from Sylvia Huynh: “I never imagined that I could learn from my own pain. It is not the pain my body is going through that I am listening to, but it is my mind that I need to pay attention to. Giving my physical body rest and taking the time to take care of myself can give me the opportunity to become aware of myself and helps me determine what my next step will be. Since I still have pain after I started practicing Buddhism, I have gradually started meditating longer daily and used that time to calm my mind down. It is funny how my whole body feels much lighter and the pain does not linger on as long now that I think about it differently” (2019).
- From author Sarah Krill Williston, M.A.: “…While individuals will never be able to go back to exactly how they were before a trauma, they can recover, and grow and find meaning in many areas of their lives, and that experiencing some level of distress is a very normal part of the process, not only of recovery, but also of post-traumatic growth” (2017).
The consistent affliction of adversity to all humans may not be fair, but I do believe it is necessary to obtain a higher degree of personal understanding, growth, and development. For example, I look at my divorces and think back on the extreme heartbreak and emotional trauma that went with each one. Was it enjoyable? No. Did any of them come about because of love? Obviously not. However, that does not mean they didn’t play a critical role in shaping me into the person I am today. I don’t feel that it is dangerous to say I needed those experiences to make me a better person. I would argue that I am just being a realist. Pain is reality – we must use it or be destroyed by it.
I look at my struggles with mental health. My depression and anxiety have plagued me for many years. Has it been easy? No. Does love from other people make it easier? Yes. However, because they are genuine medical conditions caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain, no amount of love will actually make them *poof* disappear. Survival and growth has come about through learning how to be a better person because of those illnesses, not in spite of them. Just as someone who survives a battle with cancer or a devastating auto-immune disease, I will come out stronger on the other side only if I recognize and respect my ability to do so.
If I did not have routine adversity (some small, like being stuck in a traffic jam, or large, like the emotional trauma that comes from abuse), I believe I would live in la la land. I would not be grounded in reality. If my only source of growth was love, I would be unprepared for the inevitable misfortune that comes to everyone at least once at some point in their life. I am stronger today because of what I went through yesterday. Because I am stronger, I will be able to face any adversity tomorrow with more courage and a greater willingness to learn from the pain.
I honestly suspect it would be equally dangerous to say that we do not need pain to be redefined and reshaped into better people. To say that implies that pain is optional, when it most certainly is not. I agree that someone should not use “this is making me stronger” as a reason to stay in an abusive relationship, to not seek necessary medical assistance, or to let their life slide into ruin. That being said, any of those things will indeed make them stronger when they find the courage to jump out of the situation and into a healthier and more stable story. Life is hard. There is no denying that. But what matters is what we make of it, and ourselves, along the way.
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” – C.G. Jung
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” – Charles Bukowski
Collier, L. (2016). Growth After Trauma. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma
Culliford, L. (2011). Spiritual Growth Through Major Adversity. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/spiritual-wisdom-secular-times/201104/spiritual-growth-through-major-adversity
Huynh, S. (2018). When Adversity Knocks On My Door. Buddha Gate Monastery. Retrieved from http://buddhagate.org/when-adversity-knocks/
Krill Williston, S. (2017). Experiencing trauma can eventually result in positive personal changes. Anxiety.org. Retrieved from https://www.anxiety.org/what-is-post-traumatic-growth-ptg
Mason, T. (2018). 4 Proven Ways to Overcome Adversity. PsychCentral. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/4-proven-ways-to-overcome-adversity/
Resilient. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/resilient