For better or worse, challenge is an ingrained part of growth and awakening. All of us have struggles at some point or another. But some who face challenges are happy; some are not. Why? The answer has to do with how you “tell” your story.
When I first arrived at the retreat center in Hawaii, which became my home, I discovered the number one question those of us who live here get asked: “So, how does one end up volunteering and living in such a idyllic place?” Not long after my arrival in January 2011, I was chatting with a new guest when she wondered, “How on Earth did you make this happen?”
It’s a great question. But in my case, the answer was difficult to share.
Because my personal “story” was still so raw for me, I would often simply try to skirt the issue with strangers. But it kept coming up time and time again, and I knew there was really no escaping my past. So, I continued with our discussion, and it became of sort of heart-to-heart amongst new friends. I just laid it all out.
I had lost my life partner of 11 years to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), after being his primary caregiver for an exhaustive 18-month ordeal. Then, just weeks after his death, my sister’s husband was . . . murdered. I flew to be by her side, and I returned home from that experience exhausted and empty.
Everything in my life had fallen apart, including me. So, I took a loss on my condo, stored our things, and got a one-way ticket to the bluest ocean I could find: Hawaii. I was on a quest, tapping in to a primal urge for survival. Getting in to the deep blue sea was my only goal.
“Oh, my gosh,” my new confidant exclaimed.
As I was speaking, I heard myself telling the same story that I had shared with so many others since my partner died. To be fair, it was a true story, a heart-wrenching and bitter one. But it seemed that every time I shared it, instead of it helping me process the ordeal it just reinforced the misery of it all. The story took me deeper into victimization each time I described it.
I realized that I had begun to define myself by my struggle, and with each recount of the story, it echoed in my head for days, which felt terrible. In fact, my resentment began to wear me down; grief-fatigue overwhelmed me. It frightened me to know I would not be able to go on if the pain did not cease.
The story, or, more importantly, how I told the story, had to change.
I now recognize that our thoughts and our words ultimately become our reality, and that those of us who have overcome great loss cannot afford the luxury of negative thinking. But grief, turned inside out, is love and appreciation. So, I decided to turn my story inside out.
So I began to change how I offered the information. Slowly. I started to describe the ordeal with less painful drama, and more thoughtful, detached reflection. I consciously focused on appreciating the profound love Jeff and I had experienced throughout it all. This love is a story unto itself, and I had been neglecting it, and also neglecting how strong I was to make it through the ordeal.
I began to willfully, consciously rise above the sadness that had consumed me since well before Jeff died, and today, I consciously focus on the parts of the story that remind me of how resilient I am, how much I have been given in life, and how important love is. From this perspective, I now see life as such a remarkable and rich experience.
Loss can rock our world and we can be forever changed by life’s challenges. And while these experiences certainly shape us, they do not define us. Only we decide how to write the continuing chapters of the magical story that is our life.