When I was a graduate student, I was fortunate to study with an enlightened psychologist named Dr. Joseph Gelberman.
He came to the United States during World War II as a young rabbi, ensuring that his wife and daughter would follow him. In a cruel twist of fate, their visas were stolen. Instead of coming to America, his family was sent to a concentration camp where they were murdered.
Gelberman, in his 60s, told me how he went through a “dark night of the soul,” where all he saw was rage and despair. But he came out of this darkness, realizing that when you’re alive, you should live — fully and joyfully. He went on to become a psychologist and to remarry, and lived well into his 90s. He was one of the most blissful individuals I’ve ever met.
I went through my own dark night when I was 13 years old. My parents divorced, my brothers went off to college and my grandmother, who lived with us, suddenly died — all within the same year. My mother had a new boyfriend, and I spent many nights alone. I felt abandoned. But I vowed not to let my misfortune become a cause for self-destructive behavior. A close family friend, Ruth, scooped me up and helped me get through this hard time. She saved my life.
As a psychologist, I hear many similar stories of loss, abandonment or neglect. I have the privilege of helping these individuals find their way out of their night into the light. It’s a difficult journey that they must make by themselves, but others can help along the way.
Few individuals have uneventful lives. Most of us have experienced sorrow of some kind, as well as challenges, missteps or hardship. We can’t change what happened in the past. But we can look deeply and ask how our experiences have made us who we are today.
So how can we learn and grow from adversity?
Ask yourself how your life experiences have shaped you. Early life experiences influence us in both positive and negative ways. Misfortune and painful events can help us become more focused, independent and self-reliant. They can help us become more compassionate and kinder to others, recognizing the value of thoughtfulness. But, at the same time, hurtful experiences can make us less trusting of others, less willing to depend on friends or less able to ask for help. It’s important to consider how your life experiences have impacted you.
Don’t let the past define you. We can’t change what’s happened in the past, but we can learn from our history. Learning from our experience is how we develop better judgment. Just because something bad happened in the past doesn’t mean that it will happen again. Just because we made a mistake in the past doesn’t mean that we will repeat the mistake in the future.
Be open to new experiences. Fear of future hurt and disappointment can keep us from being open to new opportunities. Don’t let fear prevent you from learning new, potentially positive life lessons.
Become the person you hope to be. As children we have no control over where we live, who takes care of us or our life circumstances. Even as adults, we can be the victim of misfortune. But as adults, we have the ability to choose, to act and to actively nurture the qualities we wish to embody.
As the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, notes: “There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called ‘yesterday’ and the other is called ‘tomorrow,’ so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly — live.”
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.