In times of difficulty, it is only natural that we turn to our closet friends and loved ones for support.
They lovingly listen as you talk endlessly about the same thing. They remain patient and kind with you as you struggle to work through your thoughts and emotions, regardless of how ridiculous some of the things you are saying might be. They let you cry on their shoulder without commenting on the tear splotches and mascara stains you leave on their shirt. They give you amazing advice – with a wisdom that comes from knowing you inside-out, and an honesty that comes from wanting to see you overcome the test. And most importantly, they pray with you – and, for you.
This process is how we gain the insight and encouragement we need to resolve our situations.
But more fundamental than all of that, I think, is the ability to change the way we look at all of life’s tests that come our way. One of my closest friends – one of the wisest and strongest people I know – has, in the relatively short time that we’ve been friends, not only been a rock in times of adversity, but has always encouraged me to embrace life’s tests and to find beauty in them. This is perhaps the most valuable skill I could ever hope to learn and an ability that I feel that every person needs to continually nurture in themselves and others!
Be not troubled because of hardships and ordeals; turn unto God, bowing in humbleness and praying to Him, while bearing every ordeal, contented under all conditions and thankful in every difficulty.
Changing our perspective doesn’t make the test, in itself, go away, but it allows us to stay grounded even when the strong waves of emotion and doubt hit us, and allows us to remain hopeful even in the darkness and dreariness of our pain and anxiety!
The hardest tests for me have been the ones in which I have no real control over the circumstances. In times like this, I am forced to realise that there is nothing I can do but let things take their course and to accept that I will simply have to find peace in the way things unfold.
As someone whose preferred mode of action is to march into everything with a 5-point plan of attack and who is often described by close friends as having “a need, bordering on unhealthy, for control and certainty” (thanks, guys!), this sit-on-your-hands-and-wait approach is excruciating!
Thankfully, the wisdom and counsel of my friends has helped me to do just that. Here are five strategies that I’ve learnt to help me deal with those tests where it seems like there is nothing I can actually do to change the situation.
1. Detachment does not mean denial
Detachment does not mean ignoring your emotions and pretending that you are fine when, clearly, you are anything but fine. Neither does it mean minimising your own pain and suffering. Part of accepting – and even embracing – your tests is to accept the effects that the test is having on you, and accepting that your sadness and suffering is merely a normal part of life.
Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more. Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words
Detachment doesn’t mean that you pretend your problem doesn’t exist. It simply means that you are looking at the larger picture and understanding the spiritual significance of the events and circumstances of your life.
The first step to detachment, however, is to accept and acknowledge the way your tests are making you feel. Tests are meant to be difficult – you’re allowed to feel overwhelmed and admit that you feel overwhelmed.
2. Unwrapping the gift
Something that I remind myself of nearly every day is this quote by ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
… we must realize that everything which happens is due to some wisdom and that nothing happens without a reason. The Promulgation of Universal Peace
Knowing this to be a certainty, I find it easier to find the faith and courage to get through a test, while waiting for the divine wisdom behind it to become apparent to me.
There are numerous instances in my life where I have – much later, with the benefit of hindsight – ultimately found this to be true. Some of what I once considered the most difficult and painful events in my life have ended up being the very key by which the door to something far better was opened up to me!
In every one of these instances, the path I ended up on was one that was far more beautiful and filled with goodness. It was also the path that I would never have initially chosen for myself and had often even gone to great lengths to avoid! But God, in His wisdom and providence knew better and the things that initially seemed like horrible tests ended up being precious gifts.
An analogy that I really love – courtesy of the amazingly wise people in my study circle – is that of unwrapping a gift. All tests are gifts. All tests. Not just because of the opportunity for spiritual growth, but because inevitably, there is a wisdom and hidden beauty in the very circumstances that initially bring us sadness, anger, anxiety or pain.
The tricky part is merely the ugly, unattractive wrapping that often disguises the beautiful gift. In times of tests, I remind myself that I just need to be patient as I wade through the layers of wrapping paper, peeling them away one layer at a time, and trying to find the gift buried beneath. It might take a while until I am able to actually enjoy and use the gift, but I know it’s there. Even if I can’t see it.
I’d guess that the first few times I received a wrapped gift as a very young child, I must have been very unenthused. What good was a plain box with a bow on it to me? But over time, as I received more wrapped gifts, I learnt to associate the wrapped box not with the exterior, but with its contents! I learnt that the big, ugly orange parcel was better than the small, pretty yellow one because it must have a bigger (and naturally – as far as being a child goes – better!) toy inside!
As children, we learnt to look right through the exterior of a wrapped gift and to allow our imagination to run wild with what may lie hidden within. If only we could train ourselves to think the same way about tests – reaching out to embrace the most unappealing of tests, undaunted by the immediate realities and focusing only on the hidden wisdom that lies beneath!
3. Look at what you can learn.
Remember that the hardest tests are opportunities to develop skills that you don’t already have – not just to demonstrate the countless ones that you already possess!
I often find myself “bargaining” for a test different to the one God has given me.
“Okay God, CLEARLY you want me to practice detachment. Sure. I get that. Virtues, and all that jazz. But couldn’t you have taught me detachment some other way? [Insert name of friend] is dealing with [insert test that said friend is dealing with] right now. That’s all about detachment too. Why couldn’t I have had that test? That wouldn’t have been so bad. If that were my test instead, I could TOTALLY be detached. But not this. Why this test? In this context? With these people? Do you realise how ridiculous this situation is? And it’s worse because of [insert reasons]. It would actually be funny if it weren’t so horrible. This situation is ACTUALLY impossible. Why, God, why???”
There are always reasons why some of our tests seem impossible to handle! I might feel better equipped to deal with a similar-but-different test that another person is going through, and that person might feel the same way about my test.
But that’s precisely why we haven’t been given those tests! If we had, perhaps we wouldn’t find the situation quite so difficult and agonising – but that also means that we wouldn’t have been given that same impetus for massive amounts of spiritual growth!
I’ve learnt, instead of dwelling on what often seems like Life’s twisted sense of humour, to simply acknowledge the circumstances of my situation that make it so difficult and to try to understand that the magnitude of the test actually directly correlates to the growth I’m going to get from it!
4. Find reasons to celebrate.
Amidst your feelings of hopelessness and your seeming inability to change your circumstances, find reasons to celebrate. Hardship opens our eyes to many of life’s beauties and reminds us of all the blessings we enjoy and take for granted.
I’ve always known that I have an amazing family who love and care about me, but it was only in times of trouble that I was able to observe the superhuman sacrifices they were willing to make for me.
I’ve always been grateful for the way my friends can make me feel optimistic and cheerful about life, but it’s only when I’m sitting with one of them and bawling my eyes out, and they say something hilarious that has the ability to make me start laughing hysterically – while still crying, mind you – that I’m able to appreciate the extent to which their friendship brightens up my life.
I’ve always known that God is good and gracious and kind, but it’s in the darkness and gloominess of life’s biggest tests that I am most able to observe the numerous ways in which He blesses and protects me.
Even the simple act of praying in times of difficulty is a reminder of the immense spiritual and emotional resources you have acquired as a result of your faith. That, in itself, is a huge reason to celebrate!
There is beauty in everything – even sadness. We just need to open our eyes to it.
5. Look forward to the day you are able to share the gift.
No matter how sad, distressed and broken you feel in a situation, remember that one day someone else is going to find peace and happiness because – and perhaps only because – of what you’re going through now.
I often marvel when I talk to a friend and realise that one of us is able to help the other by sharing insights that they learnt from a hugely difficult test they experienced in the past.
Sometimes it seems impossible to find meaning in suffering, but in that moment, when there is nothing in the world that anyone seems able to do to make a friend’s situation better, and you are able to draw from your pool of experience and find the one piece of advice that is able to soothe a distressed soul and help a friend begin to heal, everything you went through – no matter how long and difficult – seems like it was worth it. There are probably few experiences in life more beautiful than this.
Now, when I find myself unable to find any happiness in a situation, I focus instead on all the things I’m learning and I find peace in trusting that one day I am going to be able to bring comfort to someone dear to me by sharing the things that I am learning. Perhaps it will be years before I have an opportunity to share it with a dear friend, or decades before I pass on the wisdom I have been gifted to my grandchildren – but I know that time will come.
What tips do you have to remain “contented under all conditions and thankful in every difficulty”, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha counselled? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!