Pain is Not Purposeless: How to See the Meaning
“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Have you ever felt a general dissatisfaction with where you are in life? Ever felt like you can do something better than what you’re doing, but you’re not sure exactly what or how?
I have. In fact, I still feel this way, although I am slowly working my way toward creating a more purposeful life for myself. This can feel distressing. Painful. I feel your pain. But take heart that your pain is not purposeless.
If these feelings are familiar, this piece is for you.
Over the course of a few years, my naïve sense that I was one of those people who would just sail through relatively easily and find my way to fulfilled life, without much effort, was shattered. It left me exposed and vulnerable. Feeling weak and pathetic. It brought the realities of life into sharp focus, and I had to work hard to find peace with the long game of life.
For several years I worked with a great bunch of people in a field I was passionate about. But the job itself became monotonous and stale. I felt I was stagnating and needed to cultivate my passion elsewhere and use my talents more fully. I applied to train as a secondary school teacher and took a place later that year.
I was under no illusion that it would be easy, but my naivety led me to believe that I would be the exception to the rule and would take it all in stride.
The first belief to break. And break me, it did.
After three months I felt the reality that I was no stand-out person anymore. I could feel a mountain of expectation threatening to take over my life and leave me with nothing but work, work, work.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t finish. I quit the course. And I was left soul searching for months.
Eventually I got a temporary job in a country park, working outdoors and engaging with the public doing fun things like pond dipping. The summer was beautiful that year and it healed my soul a little.
But that came to an end after a few months and I had to find another job very quickly. I didn’t want to be left with nothing again. Partly out of desperation and partly because it was a convenient fit to previous experience, I took a job at a waste treatment plant.
It was a stark contrast to the country park.
It was grey. It was ugly. It smelled. The people weren’t unfriendly but weren’t exactly welcoming either. I felt trapped and began to despair about what life was all about. The daily grind ground me down. Was this all there was?
I was walking an emotional knife edge nearly all the time, and I couldn’t see through the fog. I felt like I was being punished for my relatively straightforward, stress-free life so far.
Fulfillment was not my destiny after all. I had failed. Or so it felt. This all began when I was twenty-seven and the worst of it between twenty-eight and twenty-nine. Hardly the end of my life.
So, if pain is not purposeless, then what is its purpose? How can there be opportunity in feeling so unhappy?
If I had known how to deal with the feelings evoked in me from the start, then I wouldn’t have felt the pain so intensely. The fact that I had to learn how to cope was the very purpose of it all.
Looking back now, this was all necessary because I have learned so much during this process (in fact, I’m always learning).
Even though I’m still not sure exactly where I want to be, I’ve learned to be more present and intentional in the everyday process of life. In fact, because I don’t have a definitive idea, I have learned these things. Because I realized I needed to learn to appreciate the moment or I’d live my whole life waiting for the future.
So, if you’re reading this in the midst of something similar to what I have described, realize that what you’re going through is part of a greater process.
Make dealing with the pain the reason for the pain.
Whatever you’re going through, choose to see this as an opportunity to learn about yourself and hone your coping skills. And consider that maybe you need this exact experience to heal, grow, and thrive.
If you’re dealing with a breakup, this could be an opportunity to heal your relationship patterns and learn to be alone.
If you’ve just lost your job, this could be a chance to reflect on what you really want and what might make you more fulfilled.
If everything is falling apart all at once, this could be a challenge to find peace and strength within yourself so you’re able to better weather any storms that come your way.
To adopt this kind of perspective, we must accept life in its entirety. We all want to feel “good” about life, but there is opportunity in all sadness.
Accepting this and discovering the opportunity in your challenge will help to improve not just your short-term mental health, but your outlook on life overall.
And when you embrace this shift in perspective, it will improve your patience with life. A patience to allow life to unfold without having to know exactly how or what or when. Particularly when we’re young we are impatient to get to where we feel we ought to be or to feel how we want to feel. This leads us to feel resentful and entitled to better.
You do deserve better, but it won’t happen in an instant.
Be grateful that you are aware of your desire for greater fulfilment. That’s the first step. The next is to wield it effectively to make it a reality.
But we need to learn to deal with the pain along the way. Seeing the opportunity in painful experiences starts with the small things.
Take the next daily irritation and turn it on its head—being stuck in traffic on the way to work, for example. What is the positive side? Can’t find one? Keep thinking. Maybe it’s a chance to practice patience. Or an opportunity to practice not sweating the small stuff.
Our natural tendency is to gravitate to the negative (evolution’s fault). Keep at it and you will train your mind to focus more on the light than the dark. If we allow ourselves to be consumed with the negative, we are not seeing the whole.
You can also hone this empowered mindset by being grateful for the little things in your life. Have you ever been consumed with frustration from work at the end of an otherwise beautifully sunny day? Or rushed through your coffee in the morning thinking about the rest of the day? Or missed the sounds of nature or the fresh air on your skin because you’re in a rush?
Make an effort to notice these things and appreciate them. Write them down at the end of the day and you may surprise yourself at the length of the list of simple pleasures that dotted a day that you perceived as a “bad.”
Then, when whatever you are going through resolves (and it will, in time), you will have appreciated the good amidst the not-so-good.
We will resolve our problems one way or another. We can either resolve them and choose misery through the pain or resolve them and choose positivity through the pain. The choice is ours to make.
About Joe Holmes
Joe lives on the south coast of the UK where he searches for meaning between the “meaningless,” sharing his spiritual journey as it unfolds on his blog intentionallivingjournal.com. He learns about life through reading, lifting weights, and playing heavy metal guitar. He doesn’t write from a place of having “made it.” He’s learned many useful lessons but is still learning and figuring things out. So his offering is for people to read his blog and see how it evolves.