Embracing Life’s Most Challenging Teachers

How Can We Embrace Tragedy, and What Can We Learn From It?

There is a spiritual principle which asserts that all life experiences are teachers, and we should thank them. This is usually easiest for us to do when the teacher is kind and pleasant. Of course we don’t mind dropping the proverbial apple off at the desk of the good teachers and showering them with gratitude for a job well done. Anyone can do that. 

A slightly smaller group of us can see challenges, though difficult, as opportunities for growth. We can lean into sayings like “no pain, no gain” and celebrate ourselves for an obstacle faced and then cleared. This is good, a sign of internal strength, and a quality we should indeed regard with personal pride.

But things get a little uglier when we are faced with those moments that literally alter life. The challenges that bring us to our knees, destroy our businesses, threaten our health, break our hearts, rob us of those we love. Can we really thank that? What can we learn from such a tragedy?

I was in my second year of law school when my first wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The doctor’s words sucked the air out of the room. And when she died just a couple short years later, the very same air screamed with the silence of permanently halted breath. 

I was visited by a thousand teachers I never wanted during those years. Moments of hope that lifted us like the updrafts that carry birds, followed by crushing down gusts that threw our tired bodies to an unforgiving ground. We went together to the very pits of hell. We were also loved so intensely by angels in human bodies. I helped escort a person I loved without measure to her final rest. And at the same exact time I carried myself through law school, a job, a bar exam, and running a house. Teachers everywhere, always, all at once. Life has a way of being like that. 

In the aftermath of her death I coped poorly. A new teacher, Mrs. Addiction, cemented her place in my inner classroom. I was a mess – but also teeming with potential. Again, life has a way of being like that.

Should I thank any of that? No one would blame me if I didn’t. Nor would they blame me if I had permanently succumbed to the oh-so-tempting desire to live my life in total victim identity. 

Rough childhood? Check.
Wife died after prolonged illness? Check? 
Trauma? Check. 
Addiction? Check. 

Totally not my fault. I LOVED victim me. She was so easy to let off the hook. She was also going nowhere. Life…. Is like that.

Then more teachers. Also rough. Difficult experiences that taught me subjects like accountability, and raw truth, and acceptance, and not believing your own enabling thoughts. Slowly, the experiences of staring at myself, my memories, my traumas, my demons, my joys… all naked in the mirror… it all left behind a powerful knowing. I AM strong. I AM resilient. I AM capable. I AM embodied grit. And I might not be in charge of what happens all the time, but I am responsible for how I show up to face it. 

I face it with a deep and intense inner power. I earned that, and learned that from all the horrible teachers I had. And for that, I am forever grateful. Thank you, my teachers. I wouldn’t be here without you.

Can you think of a moment in your life when a challenging experience ultimately became a transformative teacher? How did it impact you? What do you feel we can learn from facing adversity or a life-altering event? I would love to hear your story.