I had what you would call a “non-traditional” childhood. Perhaps that’s the kind way of saying it. The truth was that it was hard, confusing, painful and, more often than not, terrifying. My parents struggled in their own relationship and, sadly, left my siblings and I to largely fend for ourselves. Not that we went hungry, abused or homeless, those are real hardships that happen to kids everyday. But for us kids, it’s all we knew and so it was our own suffering and it was real.
Yes, we could find food in the house (we cooked it ourselves or just mostly lived on junk food), we could find clothes to wear (often dirty) and beds to sleep in, but we couldn’t find much love, comfort or support in our home. We weren’t really ever taught the basic things that kids at a young age need. Things like how to cope with the world around us, how to make good choices and the things to do to live a good healthy life…encouragement, advice, instruction, teaching…we never really had the basic foundation that I think most kids need to help them build a life for themselves.
For many years when I was younger, I struggled to make sense of my childhood. I tried to understand what I did “wrong” to deserve such a difficult family life. I was never comfortable in my own skin and was filled with anxiety and self doubt. All, I am sure, are symptoms of the childhood I had.
And even though I found “success” in life, in my career, and my family, I never fully lost that sense of fear and self-doubt. My need to be loved, accepted and ultimately, get approval from others, all clearly stemmed from my lack of all having those basic emotional needs met as a child.
But one day, it all just melted away.
When I started to really pursue my own sense of self, my spirituality and the meaning of my life, my journey led me to embrace Buddhism. All credit to my amazing wife who was there before me as usual. And in this spiritual embrace of my new found faith, I found many of the answers I had been seeking. And in particular, this teaching which really changed my life: that in our struggles lies our greatest opportunities for self growth.
And I started to see my own journey so differently. That perhaps my childhood was actually a gift. Maybe it was actually what the universe intended for me to experience so that I would learn things I would never have learned otherwise. I started to see that I could use my childhood as a source of incredible strength and equip myself with the knowledge that no obstacle in life would ever stop me from growing and evolving. And that my greatest struggles are in fact my greatest teachers.
I also see now that one of my purposes in life is to help others who are struggling in ways similar to the way I have in my life. To teach them what I have learned. To help them understand that there are many wonderful choices they can make if they embrace their own spirituality and faith. That if they surrender to whatever they truly believe in that is the great “source” behind the Universe, that they can continue to find meaning in their suffering.
So now whenever I hit a road block, I don’t see it as something standing in my way; instead, I see it as another great teacher. I see that every time I sense some form of anxiety or uncertainty in my life, it’s a sign of a growth opportunity ahead.
I am constantly amazed at how people try to avoid suffering. How parents in particular really do such a disservice to their kids by trying to prevent them from making mistakes, failing and experience pain for themselves. I see an entire generation of kids that are petrified to take take risks, to step out of their comfort zone and who strive to live “perfect” lives that their parents seem to construct for them. And I see what a terrible disservice they do as a result.
With my own life as an example, when disappointment and hardship comes to me, and it comes often, I carry on. When people are cruel and mean, I remain firm in my own conviction of kindness and love. How sickness and death are part of life, and not something that stops me from having hope and faith.
I have learned self-reliance from my struggles. I have learned that I have in me all the tools I need to construct my own narrative of positivity and goodness. When we block, prevent and shield ourselves and our loved ones from suffering, we are paralyzing them and teaching them victimhood for their entire existence.
So, if you know a loved one who is struggling, if you have a child that is in a period of anxiety or self-doubt, of course offer unconditional kindness, love and support. But also know that this experience is actually a gift. I know now my own struggles as a child, while I don’t wish them on anyone and I won’t repeat them on my own kids, was how I found my purpose, and meaning and strength in life.
My struggles have taught me so much in my personal life, in my own self growth and in my professional career. They are the things I turn to when I face moments of indecisiveness. When I can’t seem to find clarity. When the road in front of me isn’t always clear. In those moments, I simply reflect on where I have been, the mountains I have climbed and the lessons I have learned along the way. After all, we are all given a choice of what to do with what we experience. What do we do with it? How do we construct the narrative around it? Do we choose victimhood or do we choose meaning and wisdom?
One of the greatest books I ever read, and one that stays with me on a daily basis is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning.
A few of my favorite quotes from this extraordinary book relate to this particular blog on suffering as a great teacher…
And while in my life I have not suffered nearly anything close to what Mr. Frankl has, or millions of others, I now look back on my own suffering as a child and see so much meaning in that experience. In many ways, I am blessed to have experienced what I did at such an early age. It was given to me for a reason and it was my purpose in life to find that meaning. Now I finally have.