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When It Is Dark Enough, You Can See the Stars

How adversity gives you second sight.

Key points

  • Darkness and hardship are teachers in disguise, sent by life to teach us the art of transforming pain into insight, darkness into illumination.
  • Accepting that adversity is fuel for growth, essential to personal realization, inoculates you against despair.
  • When you stop expecting humans not to be humans — and existence not to be a struggle — you liberate yourself from disappointment.

Darkness and hardship are teachers in disguise, sent by life to teach us the art of transforming pain into insight, darkness into illumination.

Initiation rites from around the world confirm this sacred relationship between darkness and wisdom, or what indigenous people call "second sight."

As poet Theodore Roethke tells us, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see." It is only by exposing ourselves to the truth in all of its ominous uncertainty, and shifting our perspective to transcend negative predictions, that we are able to gain the sort of insight through misfortune that we could not have reached any other way.

This is important to understand. The most enduring, transformative lessons in life arrive most of the time in unwanted packages, through loss, insecurity, suffering, terror, and disillusionment, as anyone over 40 knows.

We cannot mature as human beings without having first learned to negotiate darkness and the unknown. “He has seen but half the universe who never has been shown the House of Pain,” Emerson reminds us.

Nature teaches us that vitality — and new life — are only born through the death of the old. Destruction is a necessary, vital component of our personal ecology, as well as the foundation of our resilience.

Accepting that adversity is fuel for growth and essential to personal realization inoculates you against despair by reminding you that life was never meant to be easy.

The Stoics were consummate masters of this emotional yoga. Marcus Aurelius warns us famously at the outset of the Meditations of the pitfalls of human behavior: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly,” advised the Roman Emperor.

This makes perfect sense. When you stop expecting humans not to be humans — and existence not to be a struggle — you liberate yourself from disappointment. You avoid the doomed expectation that life will be other than it is. Then, when something positive happens, it's a delightful surprise you can thoroughly enjoy.

An Antidote to Self-Pity

Facing life on its own terms is also an antidote to self-pity. Self-pity is a trap laid by ignorance that presupposes we should be special, not vulnerable to pain like everyone else.

Gratitude changes all this. Being willing to be thankful for life with all of its endless imperfections ennobles the mind and opens the heart to compassion, bringing insight and deeper connection.

As the Ojibwe say, “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky." Even when we are beset by pain and beleaguered by hard things, we can choose not to turn our pain into suffering by imagining that we are alone in adversity.

This separation is the heart of our sorrow — that and the fantasy that this should not be happening, whatever this is, that things should be other than how they are.

Should is never the pathway to truth. It's only through acceptance wisdom comes. This is not the same as resignation. It doesn't mean not trying to improve ourselves and make the world a better place. It means not forgetting our considerable blessings, even in the midst of hard times.

The ego hears this as rationalization, whitewashing, slapping a happy face on sad realities. But these principles are incontestably true when viewed from a spiritual perspective.

A Form of Grace

Whatever it takes to wake us up is a form of grace. Whatever is required to shake us from our complacency, or vacillation, and stop taking life for granted is a form of grace.

The older we get, the more aware we become of bitter pills bringing the sweetest benefits sometimes, evolutions we would not have expected.

We learn to welcome grace in its "distressing disguise," as Mother Teresa described her working with human suffering while seeing the body of Jesus in everyone.

You come to see the sun in the night sky. I am not speaking at all religiously. I'm defining grace as the alchemy between loss and revelation, darkness and light, the vitalizing effects of which make it impossible not to be grateful for terrible things — this generally happens after the fact — when they serve to be put a fire underneath us.

“Whilst he sits on the cushion of advantages, he goes to sleep,” Emerson wrote. “When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has the chance to learn something.”

We are not always aware of the education while it's happening. “In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered that much was accomplished and much was begun in us," Emerson continued.

Forces are working in us even at our worst, reorganizing our inner worlds and preparing us for what is coming. Times of uncertainty are frequently ripest for transformation, an assertion supported by data on posttraumatic growth.

This only happens when a person explores her own thoughts and feelings surrounding the event, we know from the research. "Positive integration" is the result of adversity survived, an integration the happens when we reframe experience. Reorganizing our perspective in the aftermath of seismic change is key to our flourishing.

"Second Sight" in the Time of COVID-19

Today, it's critical that we reflect on "second sight" as we move through the gloom of viral uncertainty. It’s vital that we not get trapped in the pandemic narrative, which suggests that doom and gloom are all there is, that this is the worst time of our lives, and that the world will never be the same, and that’s a bad thing.

This is a victim narrative. It will kill us emotionally long before COVID-19 can get us. It is antithetical to flourishing and self-reliance, and it prevents us from becoming sources of light in the world. It's possible to acknowledge the horrific aspects of the world without slamming the prison door of "poor-me!" behind us to turn our lives into virtual dungeons.

Posttraumatic growth is the result of reordering our stories about loss and pain, and who we think we're supposed to be. It means removing ourselves from the victim seat and responding to difficulties more creatively, adaptably, imaginatively, and inquisitively.

Call it intentionality or self-fulfilling prophecy, it boils down to the same thing: We can use pain to wake up or as an excuse to go to sleep.

When we cling to our self-centered stories and resist moving through our pain, we interfere with the flow of nature that's always changing, discovering new outlets and resolutions, changing shape, surprising us.

It’s actually easier to surrender to things as they are than it is to fight reality.

That doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to circumstances we might improve. Nor does it mean miraculously becoming grateful for heartbreak, trauma, and loss.

Rather, we regain the energy it takes to fight reality and turn it toward doing something worthwhile.

We use the flame concealed in the darkness to light our own way.

The Buddha taught us to be lamps unto ourselves. We contain the power of awakening within us. To reveal it, we need the willingness to meet things exactly as they are while not forgetting the stars in the darkness, not forgetting that morning will come.

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