“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” ~Viktor Frankl
When life goes sideways, it can be hard to take one more breath, let alone find meaning.
I can assure you that it is possible. Trust me.
In the same year, I had breast cancer, chemo, radiation, and a divorce I didn’t want. There’s more to the story (there always is), but in essence, I lost everything—my health, my love, my home.
I began to lose sight of my own self and stopped trusting in myself during all this. Everything was my fault.
Within 24 hours of me leaving my house, six close friends handed me their keys, so I could always stay in them homes. I was overwhelmed by the kindness of my family.
Also during this time, I had two powerful dreams and one still small voice—these three messengers told me the very things I needed to hear to go on.
The first was about someone creating something wonderful in a kitchen. I couldn’t eat what she was making, because taste often goes awry with chemo, but I remember the cook saying, “Honey, there’s more sugar than salt in this recipe.”
In other words, life’s sweetness would return. It will take some time.
Second dream: I fell into the earth, and all that was left of me was gone. The only thing that was left was an incredibly strong and shiny bone.
The dream told me there was something deeper than that, that could not be destroyed. It had to do everything with light and fierceness.
That still tiny voice? Whatever was going on, I knew deep within that there was an unfailing wisdom and stillness in me. How do I understand that?
This was the first thing I realized. I had to have something that would help me survive. But, this also made it clear to Me that I must be deliberate about what I do to survive. Because I wanted myself to become better and not worse.
Writing and recording mini-meditations was something that I did. I called them “A Hit of Hope.” A friend told me that the best place to record was in a closet, so there I sat, on top of my shoes, talking into my phone—using my voice and my words to name my pain and to convince myself that things would get better.
Every human will experience pain and trauma. Every human being will experience things they don’t want. However, as long we live we know life is unpredictable. Both in large and small ways we will experience suffering. So as much as it pains me to say this, why suffering happens is irrelevant. We can only decide for ourselves how to behave in times of suffering and pain.
There are times when I feel overwhelmed by emotions, but I’ve learned some things in the process.
1. Radical self-love is the best thing for you to do when life has thrown your way.
Put down any metaphorical salt, knives or gas cans when you’re in pain. Don’t make the fire any bigger or the wounds any deeper than they already are.
How do I understand that? You need to make choices that will keep you clear of all distractions, and that protect your spirit as well.
For instance, a friend of mine, who was going through a divorce at the same time, was told by his best friend, “Just get roaring drunk, and stay that way for three months.” While that might help numb the pain, that kind of behavior would only create more problems in the long run. A journaling or yoga practice would make it easier to heal.
Also, even if you messed up, don’t beat yourself up. Are you willing to admit that you were responsible for the current situation? Yes, you can. But think about yourself as a child on the playground. More finger-wagging and scolding does not help. Often, it’s a big ol’ hug that is needed to stop the tears. Get centered and settled. Then, pour lots of love onto your wounded self.
2. Every ounce of your feelings can be felt.
Don’t be embarrassed about your emotions. The first and second darts are Buddhist concepts. The emotion is first.
Our reaction to that emotion is the second dart. This is why I do it every time. If I were a better person, I’d… You know the drill. Allow your emotions to flow freely, so you can feel calm.
3. It is impossible to lose time but it is not necessary to rush.
This is what the hell does this mean? That bold statement doesn’t mean you should fly into manic or panic mode, but there is nothing like a life-threatening illness to remind a person that this now matters. This is actually the only time you can be certain of receiving. “You never know what’s coming,” a friend often says.
Living each day fully is the goal. Make the little choices that give you joy every day. This might mean starting that novel or business, calling that friend you’ve been missing, getting on your bike or yoga mat, or climbing that mountain and yodeling until the grizzlies roar back in response.
There is no one, single decision that can magically make us happy for the rest. There are the small choices that add up—and either bring us toward more wholeness or continue to tear us to bits.
4. The meaning of life is how we survive.
Viktor Frankl, who survived four Nazi death camps pointed out this last point. Even though it may seem impossible to find meaning even in the most terrible of situations, it is vital. It’s here that the why matters.
When life assails, it can be easy to ask, “What’s the point?” To feel adrift. You are untethered. Untethered.
Your purpose and your reason are essential. What can you—you—do that makes life feel fuller, richer, more vibrant and alive?
It was useful for me to consider active verbs. My goal was to create, move, heal and serve.
How did that look? Each morning I exercised to strengthen my muscles. Next, I would write meditations and get lost in the pleasure of creating something. The process helped my soul and strengthened me. They were posted with the intent of helping others.
Look at what you do in life if it is difficult to find your meaning. Is there something that you find time-consuming, or is it something that you enjoy? That’s often a great indication of what brings you meaning. Is there something that you enjoy doing? You can incorporate these things into your everyday life.
Ask a friend for help if you’re still having trouble. Take a stroll and allow your thoughts to wander with you. Sometimes your spirit just needs quiet time and space to express itself fully.
This might sound like fluffy advice, but it’s not. As Frankl famously said, “He [or she or they] who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
To be clear, this isn’t easy, nor does it happen in a day, a week, a month, or even a year. Good things can be made if you provide the right environment.
The other week, while sitting outside on my porch last week, I noticed that there was an orchid in the front yard. My orchid was in my front window when I got up to make tea.
Before I began chemo, a friend gifted it to me. Every morning, I look at it as I sit inside and write, but this was the first time I’d seen it from the outside. The light direction was clearly visible through the buds that were pressed up against my window.
When I was sitting in my leather chair, the soon-to be blossoms were completely hidden by the pot as well as the leaves.
The orchid was a dream that gave me a message. These flowers taught me an important and deeply moving truth. Sometimes, there is more to life than you think.
About Betsy Johnson
Betsy Johnson teaches English and Communication at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. Her A Hit of Hope meditations can be found on Insight Timer https://insighttimer.com/betsyjohnson. You can also subscribe to her newsletter at https://betsybeingbetsy.substack.com/. Betsy is also a seasoned and quirky yoga teacher, and you can check out her yoga website here: https://www.willowyogaminnesota.com/. You can email her at email@example.com
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