The loss of a job, business failure, a divorce, the loss of a loved one – difficult times like these can leave you feeling hopeless, alone, and completely powerless.
While I am fortunate to have never been through divorce or the loss of a loved one, I have gone through job loss, business failure, bankruptcy, and have faced homelessness.
These dark times in my life were stressful and miserable. To be honest, I’ve gone through periods where I wanted to die, feeling like my life was over anyway.
However, I have also emerged from dark times in my life with new opportunities, and valuable lessons that have moved my life in surprising, fulfilling directions.
Here are 5 lessons that I learned from going through dark times in my life:
1) Peace & Joy Is Hiding In The Present Moment
When faced with a “life storm”, I get caught up in conjuring up the most nightmarish, catastrophic scenarios about the future. Yeah, my anxiety drives that, but it is fueled by uncertainty and hardship.
I’d fear the implications of not being able to pay bills. I’d fear losing my home. I’d fear failure, and the shame and consequences of it.
My chronic anxiety disorder causes me to spend a lot of my time thinking about all of the awful things that COULD happen.
But actually going through dark times, when I felt absolutely powerless to change a damn thing, taught me that the present moment is all that really matters.
In fact, despite facing homelessness, an overdrawn bank account, and feeling like I had lost everything I worked so hard for, I learned to conjure up moments of peace and joy when I centered myself in the present moment.
Yes, it was hard. It took a LONG time to be able to do that. But going through prolonged hardship has forced me to learn to be present and mindful in the here and now to survive.
While the past no longer exits, and the future is imagined, the present is real right now, and I have a choice in how I use the present moment.
This realization was a powerful turning point during some of the darkest times of my life.
I had a choice. I could wallow in self-pity and the misery of imagining impending calamity.
I could beat myself up over the mistakes I made in my past.
Or I could focus my attention on the present moment – the feel of the sun (or the rain) on my skin, the damp, freshness of a walk though the woods, the stillness of the moon on a clear night sky, the embrace of a loved one.
I could worry about all that was going wrong (or could go wrong), or I could express gratitude for all I had – for everything that was going right – no matter how small or inconsequential it seemed at the time.
I discovered self-care when I felt the most powerless. I built a personal (non-theistic) spirituality to strengthen a connection to something bigger and more powerful than myself – something that took the edge off my anxiety and depression – and the crushing weight of my burden.
And I was surprised that I could still feel peace and joy and gratitude – even when I no longer recognized my own life.
While my well-entrenched mental habit of ruminating on the past, or projecting imagined catastrophe into the future, have not abated, I have become well-practiced in being more present, which has served me well in both dark times and in good times.
2) Everything Is As It Should Be (ie: Resistance Is Futile)
When you get a cold, it’s not the cold virus that makes you feel miserable. It’s your body’s immune response that causes the symptoms that make you miserable. Your body’s resistance to pathogens causes suffering (and yes, it does save your life.)
When it comes to your life circumstances, it’s not so much the circumstances themselves that cause mental anguish and suffering. It’s our resistance to these circumstances that cause suffering.
One of my blogging heroes, Steve Pavlina, wrote an article a while ago on how to be a fun broke person. It sounds like a joke, until you realize that he’s right. There are a TON of incredible, fun things that you can do – even when you are broke, or buried under crushing debt and financial ruin.
Some of the best, most precious, things in life are absolutely free.
Your reaction to your circumstances either cause you to suffer more, or enjoy your life, no matter what.
Of course, it’s hard to accept being broke. It’s hard to accept the uncertainty about where you will lay your head, how you’ll pay bills, or how to try to live your life and provide for your family when everything in your life feels like it is imploding and you feel powerless to stop it from happening.
However, mentally resisting the experience doesn’t make the experience go away. It doesn’t make it any better. It makes things 100% worse.
It took me a long time to get to this point, but when I started to accept my circumstances as they were, without judgement, without resistance, I found it easier to focus on the present moment and open myself to more moments of peace and perspective.
Now I’m not saying that you should just give up and “go with the flow”.
Instead, stop resisting. Allow it to happen, and stay focused on solutions rather than problems.
3) You Are Not Alone (& Your Friends/Family Are Not Cold and Uncaring About Your Plight)
When I’ve gone though dark times, I felt alone. I felt isolated. I felt cut off from friends and family who did not appear to understand or empathize with what I was going through.
When your life is in massive upheaval, it does feel like nobody else cares about your situation.
They don’t check in with you when you wish they would. They carry on with their seemingly perfect lives while you struggle alone.
Their life is easy, effortless – while your life is miserable and hard. It’s not fair and nobody cares.
Life goes on. The world hums along not caring a bit about whether or not you are drowning, and fighting for your life.
But that’s not what is really going on.
Some people just don’t know how to help you. They don’t know what to say. Maybe they’ve never been through the situation you are going through.
Or they simply cannot help you. Perhaps they are caught up in fighting their own demons while putting on a brave face for the world – just like you might be doing.
My instinct is to hide failure, to put on a brave face and act as though nothing is wrong – that I am not struggling. In fact, everyone has that predilection. Just scroll through your friend’s Facebook feeds and you’ll see shiny happy lives – none of the heartache, trauma, and struggle that most all of them have endured from time to time.
It isn’t until we are open about what we are going through that we open the door to deeper connection with others who relate to our situation.
When I wrote my article about how I struggle with anxiety, I never expected to receive so many comments and e-mails from people who struggled the exact same way I do.
When we are suffering through struggle, we feel alone. But millions of people are out there who have either gone through what you are going through, or are currently going through difficulty.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Let people know you’re struggling. Let them know what you need from them – even if it’s just a phone call, or a hug – because some people want to help you, but simply don’t know how.
4) There Is Tremendous Freedom In Loss
While we fear loss, it can be tremendously liberating.
Shortly after filing for bankruptcy in 2010, Tracy and I hopped on an airplane to live in Mexico for six months, from which we launched a wildly successful website, Incredible Smoothies (now DavyandTracy.com).
Yes, the loss of Tracy’s job was devastating at the time.
So was the loss of videography income during the economic downturn.
So was the fact that we could no longer afford our one-bedroom Chicago apartment.
This loss stung. It hurt. It was painful. But it birthed a new chapter of our lives and gave us the freedom to experience living in Mexico for six months, and to turn our blog into a six-figure business that transformed tens of thousands of lives.
I have found that resisting loss, fearing loss, dwelling on loss only extends suffering. But when you accept and surrender to it, you find that opportunities abound.
Yes, it’s painful as hell. But when you hit rock bottom, you have may paths to follow to climb back up!
5) Your Suffering Can Have Purpose
No, I’m not talking about a divinely-orchestrated ploy to “get your attention”, shape your character, or test your faith.
But have you ever considered that the darkest, most difficult times in your life might be a gift, and have a purpose?
It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but as I mentioned in point #4, catastrophic loss can often open the door to something amazing.
Difficult times in life can also prepare you for your life’s purpose.
Incredible Smoothies emerged from the ashes of our former lives, birthed from the stress, pain, and turmoil of financial catastrophe, bankruptcy, and facing homelessness.
Struggling with suicidal depression lead me to self-care, and connecting to a spirituality that gave me a sense of peace and joy amid the turbulence in my head.
My suffering was the birthing pains that brought forth my life’s purpose.
Ultimately, we have a choice about how the difficult and dark times in our lives shape us.
We can either grow bitter and resentful. We can hunker down in victimhood. We can blame others, or ourselves. We can give up.
Or we can learn and grow from our experiences. We can open ourselves up to the lessons that uncomfortable life experiences teach us.
We can use our experiences, and our subsequent self-growth, to help others who are going through similar hard times. We can turn tragedy, upheaval, and difficult life circumstances into something that benefits others, while lifting us out of turmoil as well.
With every massive upheaval in my life – going through bankruptcy, facing homelessness, job loss, and business failure – I have ultimately become grateful for these events.
Sure, it was difficult at the time, but these events shaped me into who I am. They opened doors that I would not have walked through otherwise.