How to Reframe Your Difficult Stories: 5 Part Workshop Series: Step 3– Finding the Meaning or Purpose Behind an Experience
When Becky Andrews (episode 22) found out that she had a degenerative eye disease that would cause her to go blind, I’m sure she wondered, “Why me?.” When my son was diagnosed with Leukemia and had to return from his mission where he was teaching others about Christ’s love for them and serving them, a journey he had worked, waited, and saved money for, I wondered, “Why him? When Rusty Lindquist (episode 21) was living with his mother in a trailer, in the woods, with no electricity or running water as a child because she had to hide him from a father who was trying to sacrifice Rusty, like Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, in order to prove to God that he was to be the next prophet; then one day his mother didn’t come back from work and he sat there all alone, day after day wondering what happened to her…these are not the moments when we see the meaning. These are the moments when the tornado hits and the pain rises and the rubber meets the road. But later there is a space where we must find the purpose, the meaning behind the experience in order to make peace with our path. Pain without purpose is just pain. Join us today for an in depth look at the third step of reframing our stories – Finding the meaning and purpose behind an experience.
Stories are our lives in language. Welcome to the Love Your Story podcast. I’m Lori Lee, and I’m excited for our future together of telling stories, evaluating our own stories, and lifting ourselves and others to greater places because of our control over our stories. This podcast is about empowerment and giving you, the listener, ideas to work with in making your stories work for you. Story power serves you best when you know how to use it.
A crucial step in being able to find peace in our most painful stories is the step of finding some purpose for them, some meaning, something that we can take away from the darkness, sacrifice, or pain that paved the path we walked.
The Buddha taught that all life is suffering, that suffering comes from holding on to selfish desires, and that selfish desires can be overcome. The Christian dogma indicates that God uses our suffering to refine and teach us. If you Google suffering you will find that almost all results lead you to some religious reference, which to me indicates that when it comes to our suffering we turn outside ourselves to find answers. We want help. We want to find a peace in the storm, which is often what we turn to religion for. This is not uncommon, in fact, it’s completely common, hence the Google search results. When we go through the chapters of our stories where we battle the dragons, the antagonists, the sorrows and disappointments we desperately want to believe that there can be something good to come from it. We hope against hope looking for answers and asking the questions…why?
Joan Borysenko said, “We cannot wish old feelings away nor do spiritual exercises for overcoming them until we have woven a healing story that transforms our previous life’s experience and gives meaning to whatever pain we have endured.”
Philip Zimbardo, one of the most respected psychologists of the twentieth century, and past president of the American Psychological Association taught at Yale and Stanford and authored over 50 books. He was born in 1934. When he was 5 years old he got whopping cough and pneumonia. Steve Kotler, in his book The Rise of Superman, retells Zimbardo’s story pointing out that “In those days before antibiotics 63 percent of all children with whooping cough or double pneumonia did not recover. A friend Zimbardo made, as a little boy in the hospital, died there, next to him, and Zimbardo found that the only way to fight off the depression and fear of the situation was to use his imagination – he just kept imagining better possible futures. Today we call this visualizing – visualizing the outcomes we want. Creating our desires, first in our minds. Eventually, Zimbardo recovered and was released, and he was shocked to realize, as he looked back and viewed his time in the hospital, that it had turned out to be a positive experience because he learned self-reliance, he learned to create a perspective in difficult times that would benefit him. Though it was a difficult, terrifying, and painful time in his life, he had gained something from the experience. Something very, very important that would affect the rest of his life.
This is an example of the ever important step on your way to reframing, of finding the blessing, the takeaway, the lesson from the tough experiences of life. It is also an example of choosing to actively direct perspective instead of letting raw emotion and reaction to the situation at hand determine your attitude.
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish Psychologist who was interred in a concentration camp and survived, shares an experience where a client came into his office distraught because his wife had died and he was lonely and lost without her. Through Viktor’s deep understanding of suffering, he quietly asked the man a question – what would have happened if your wife had passed before you? “Oh,” said the man, “that would have been horrible. She could never have handled it.”
“Well,” said Viktor, “you can be grateful that you have been able to spare her that difficulty and suffering, by being the one to stay behind.” Though the man had come in for an entire session or more to find some relief from his deep suffering, this one question, this one answer was all he needed to be able to move forward. He had found the purpose in his suffering – the opportunity to walk this path so his wife did not need to. He stood up, walked out of Viktor’s office, and Viktor never saw him again.
One of the reasons this is so important is that if we can change the negative stories we believe about ourselves, it then affects our interpretation of ourselves and our lives, and with that change behavior changes. Weights lift, outcomes shift. Our hard stories become not just about pain, but also about growth and learning or whatever the purpose or meaning turns out to be. We are talking about acceptance, freedom, and an expanded view of events and outcomes.
Here are a couple questions to start with: 1. What did you learn from your difficult experience (the story you are reframing)? 2. What positive things came about because of the experience? 3. Did you gain an understanding of things you had previously not understood? 4. Did this experience allow you to get rid of a person, thing, idea that no longer served you? 5. What meaning or purpose starts to become clear? 6. What positive piece of gold can you pull from the dross?
In his Ted Talk, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are,” Andrew Solomon shared an experience of a woman who was thrown in prison over a political issue in Burma.
Listen to the episode to hear the excerpt from this TED talk.
Later in his talk he made a profound statement, “If you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes.”
When we do this step of the reframing process we are not denying the reality of events, rather, we are looking for the silver lining. You are strong, you are resilient, you know yourself and your heart – admitting that you learned something, that you gained something, is not about saying that it’s okay that the event happened, it is simply taking up your power to say, “I WILL NOT let this keep me down! I WILL find every last takeaway because I’m worth it and I want to be free in my own heart to accept my story with all its dents and scratches. There is meaning in MY story.” In August of 2016 my son was out serving an LDS Christian mission serving others, teaching about Christ, and basically out to make the world a better place. He’s 20 years old and he’s saved his money since he was little so that he could afford to do this when he graduated from high school. So here he is, out in the world, thousands of miles away from home in Utah, and he’s working with Spanish speaking people in the Philadelphia, New Jersey area when he gets diagnosed with Leukemia. For seven months he had worked 12-14 hours a day teaching and serving, thinking he was incredibly tired because the work was hard. He had no idea that his white blood cells had become mutated so thoroughly that his bone marrow was so thick it could not be pulled from his bones, and his spleen, taking over the work of trying to create the blood cells, had become so large it transformed from this small organ that can usually not be felt from the outside of your body to one that was so distended that it took up the side and front of his abdomen giving him the look of a being 4-5 months pregnant (which of course varied depending
In August of 2016 my son was out serving an LDS Christian mission serving others, teaching about Christ, and basically out to make the world a better place. He’s 20 years old and he’s saved his money since he was little so that he could afford to do this when he graduated from high school. So here he is, out in the world, thousands of miles away from home in Utah, and he’s working with Spanish speaking people in the Philadelphia, New Jersey area when he gets diagnosed with Leukemia. For seven months he had worked 12-14 hours a day teaching and serving, thinking he was incredibly tired because the work was hard. He had no idea that his white blood cells had become mutated so thoroughly that his bone marrow was so thick it could not be pulled from his bones, and his spleen, taking over the work of trying to create the blood cells, had become so large it transformed from this small organ that can usually not be felt from the outside of your body, to one that was so distended that it took up the side and front of his abdomen giving him the look of a being 4-5 months pregnant (which of course varied depending upon the body – but it pretty big). This distention is what tipped him off that he should check in with the doctor, and he was sent home the next day with a leukemia diagnosis.
He had worked for many years for this goal – to serve a mission. He was out serving people, teaching them about Christ, he was creating good and sharing love. Why would God do this to him? Amidst great disappointment at not being able to serve, he began treatment at one of the best cancer treatment centers in the country. When he felt well enough that he could get out of bed and function in a relatively normal manner, he took another angle with his story – he began serving in the temple, a place of worship important to him and his spiritual journey. He worked six hour shifts twice a week and then went through to do his own sessions on other days. What it looked like to me was that he had transitioned his mission service into the temple itself. While the prayers, fasting, treatments, bone marrow biopsies, weekly blood draws, sleepless nights and his own independent spiritual journey unfolded, his story was developing into something beyond what he could see. His faith was tested, his patience was tried, his body was pushed into severely difficult spaces, but his example shone like a bright star for many lives who watched and were inspired. Stories started rolling in from people who had watched him and been inspired to live better and try harder. His work in the temple was deeply satisfying and when eight months had passed and his response to treatment went from almost total mutation to .3% mutation, he went back out into the mission field, filled with joy and utter excitement to return.
While he was not allowed to return to Philadelphia, he was allowed to move an hour away from home in order that he be in close proximity to the Huntsman Cancer Center. This less adventurous option was at first deeply disappointing for he’d grown to love the people and the area in Philadelphia, but in the end, as we looked at his story to find the meaning in what originally felt so unfair, we found beautiful purpose. We recognized that instead of serving in one area he was actually able to serve in 3: Philly, the temple, and Orem. We recognized the lives he had touched through his experience and example, and we, his family, gained from his light and example as he walked his path with strength and faith. And I have no doubt that there is more meaning to be uncovered in the story that at first seemed so tragic. We don’t know all the people he will meet and impact in his new area. We don’t know what other gems of meaning may yet be found in this side road that turned out to be part of the journey. It is these pieces of meaning and purpose that clarify the stories of our lives.
Brene Brown said, “Nothing is wasted. It’s all part of the process.”
And we get to embrace this idea and do the work to spin the straw into gold. Rumplestilskin has nothing over a person who becomes skilled in recognizing, finding, or creating purpose in the journey.
Have fun out there creating your big, bold, wonderful story! And pass this podcast series along to someone today who might find great relief in learning how to reframe their stories. Do a little good in the world and share the love. Also, go to www.loveyourstorypodcast.com and sign up for the free mini-ebook on the five steps for reframing the parts of your story that feel broken. It can serve as a notes on the process we are going through in this series. See you next week for Step 4 in this 5 step process. Lata’ fellow story creators.