How often do you allow your pain to become meaningful?

Today is September 19 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you allow your pain to become meaningful?” Pain is inevitable. No one escapes it. People who put in the daily grind of translating their dreams into reality experience pain but find a way to make it meaningful. Pain does not deter them. Pain does not slow them down. Pain, when channeled correctly, can be the deciding factor between accomplishing your dreams and watching the moment pass you by.

Reflecting upon your relationship with pain helps increase your self-awareness. Processing events as they happen to you along your path is a natural part of the navigation process. To reject, ignore, or minimize the significance of processing pain would be a disservice to your current self, your dreams, and your future self.

Author Jeff Foster wrote:

“When there is fear, pain, confusion, or sadness moving in you, do not despair or come to conclusions about yourself. Be honored that these misunderstood guests, at once both ancient and timeless, weary from a lifetime's lonely travel, have finally found their home in you. They are children of consciousness one and all, beloved children of yourself, deserving of the deepest respect and friendship. Offer them the deep rest of yourself and let them warm their toes by your raging fire.”

What is most interesting about Foster’s quote is the last line “let them warm their toes by your raging fire.” Have you allowed fear, pain, confusion, or sadness to ‘rest their toes by your raging fire?’ If so, how did it feel? How much time did you allow those feelings to rest inside of you? Did anyone help you process those feelings? Did you relationship with each feeling change over time? How has your mindset changed towards each feeling over the years? If you did allow those feelings to rest alongside you did that stop you from navigating the chaos? If you did not allow those feelings to ‘warm their toes’ why do you think that is?

In his best-selling 1981 book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold S. Kushner commented on the role of pain and wrote:

“Pain is the price we pay for being alive. Dead cells—our hair, our fingernails—can’t feel pain; they cannot feel anything. When we understand that, our question will change from, ‘Why do we have to feel pain?’ to ‘What do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless empty suffering?’


Both Foster and Kushner challenge people to think different about pain so that is generates meaning out of suffering. The point is not to avoid pain or suffering. Life is painful and suffering is inevitable. The task before those who are navigating the chaos and translating their dreams into reality is to find meaning amidst the suffering.

In a December 2015 Scientific American article "How to Find Meaning in Suffering," Kasley Killam examined the latest research involved with finding meaning in suffering. When people encounter a struggle, deal with the loss of a loved one, or experience a tragic event, “a common response is to search for an underlying significance that might make such devastation more bearable.” Killam discussed how the process of making meaning out of misery can be beneficial. Two examples she highlights are cancer patients and those who experience the death of a loved one. Cancer patients who derive meaning from their medical experiences often have greater psychological adjustment. Additionally, following the death of a family member, people who make sense of their loss and even find benefits in it experience less distress.

To understand the process of finding meaning in suffering researchers have studied a fascinating phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. In the 1990s psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun suggested post-traumatic growth is when a person experiences positive changes resulting from a major life crisis. According to the research, post-traumatic growth goes beyond resilience; by actively searching for good in something terrible, a person can use adversity as a catalyst for advancing to a higher level of psychological functioning.

It is important to realize post-traumatic growth does not imply that trauma is good or that suffering should be belittled. As Foster and Kushner noted, pain needs to be respected, recognized, and cared for. Therefore, the one dynamic critical to finding meaning in suffering is understanding the fact that distress and post-traumatic growth can and often do occur simultaneously. In perhaps one of the most significant observations made within the field of post-traumatic growth research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson determined that people with optimal mental health maintain a three-to-one ratio of positive-to-negative emotions, indicating that suffering plays a role in our overall well-being.

As Killiam wrote “No one is exempt from suffering, yet we can thrive and flourish despite it—and, in some cases, because of it. Trauma drives change, and that change can be positive. Post-traumatic growth points to ways in which we can use our struggles—as individuals or a nation—as springboards for greater meaning and transformation.” How often do you find meaning in suffering?