Growth Through Pain
One day many years ago I was thinking about how difficult my life had been. I was thirty-seven years old and had failed at a number of relationships. I still couldn’t support myself. And I’d had two severe depressive episodes, each one leading to hospitalizations. It looked like my life was going nowhere.
Then, one day I heard the story of the butterfly. A man was working in his garden one day when he happened upon a chrysalis, also known as a cocoon. He knew inside the cocoon was a butterfly trying to become a butterfly. Eager to watch the butterfly spread its wings and take its first flight the man took a small set of shears from his pocket and cut a slit the entire length of the cocoon so that the little butterfly could easily slip through.
However, when the butterfly eventually crawled out of the cocoon, it was crumpled up with shriveled wings that could not be used for flying. What the well-meaning gardener had failed to realize was that the butterfly needed the struggle to escape the cocoon in order to experience its transformation. The moral: some things can only be gained through struggle.
Over the past forty years, I have discovered this universal truth. Everything I have learned about overcoming depression has resulted from my struggles to overcome the hellish depressive episodes I have endured. In Chapter 3 of my memoir When Going Through Hell… Don’t Stop! I introduced my survival plan for going through hell. How did this survival plan come about? It came about because day after day, as I was on the verge of taking my life, I was forced to develop coping strategies to keep me alive.
Of course, this truth of growth through pain does only apply to me. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, started AA as a way to heal his own alcoholism. Joe Dispensa, who teaches mind-body healing internationally, started his work because he was forced to find a way to heal from a broken back. Nelson Mandela, the first president of South Africa to be elected in a multi-racial election, used his twenty-seven years in prison to develop compassion to be able to relate to all South Africans. After he was released he said,“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Think about how a pearl grows inside an oyster. A grain of sand causes irritation and in response, the oyster produces a pearl. If it were not for the irritation, there would be no beautiful pearl. The same is true for us. If we want to build physical muscle we continually challenge the muscles to deal with higher levels of resistance or weight, causing them to sustain damage or injury. When the body repairs the muscles their mass and their size increase.
Similarly, in the process of going through our trials and tribulations, we are more likely to grow new emotional or spiritual muscles. As the philosopher Nietzsche famously said, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
Of course, growing through pain is never easy. It is almost always in hindsight that we can see the teaching or the lesson in a challenge. During the pain, it is normal to ask “Why is this happening to me?” When I was going through my hell, I would ask again and again, “What purpose could this horrible suffering have? My normally positive mind has been destroyed by this depression; I cannot hold a positive thought about myself or my future.” Little did I know that what I learned from overcoming this challenge would eventually lead me down a new path of writing and teaching that I never could have imagined.
Therefore, looking back from the present moment, if I could go back in time and speak to the Douglas who was struggling, I would tell him,” Have faith, hold on. You can make it. When the time is right, the purpose and meaning of this test will be revealed to you.” And, as it turned out, this is exactly what occurred.