Well, Sometimes the Lemonade is Just not Worth the Lemons

From a very young age, my sister and I have been praised for being good, responsible, and diligent girls. And oftentimes, we had heard people attributing our early maturity and extreme vigilance primarily, of course to our devout, kind, and selfless mother but also to the hardship we were forced to endure at a very young age. Time and again, we’d heard several people make statements such as, “Your father may have abandoned you but look how you eventually turn out. Everything worked together for good. His loss!” The implication is that we succeeded not despite the hardship but rather because of it. Occasionally however, I am tempted to respond with, “Imagine how much healthier, happier, and more accomplished we would have been had we had a kinder, loving, and responsible father?” What’s erroneous about that assumption is that one, people usually make those judgments on the basis of outer behaviors such as academic performance, stellar church attendance, and politeness but tend to lose sight of a person’s inner world like one’s sense of self-worth, contentedness, and connectedness to oneself and others which to me are far more essential to one’s quality of life than what we physically see on a report card or LinkedIn profile. I have encountered far too many individuals who are successful when measured against society’s standards but utterly miserable on the inside.

Moreover, people usually equate “goodness” not to inquisitiveness, assertiveness, or healthy competitiveness but rather to conformity, blind obedience, and simply not taking up any space. And I don’t think that should be the right yardstick with which we ought to measure goodness. The whole notion of being a “good” person and what constitutes goodness in general is something that I have been rethinking lately and I will come back to it at another time. But the other query I would like to raise is: can we say that all types of suffering, however prolonged, unbearable, and unjust they may be, lead to positive and life-affirming outcomes?

The line of thinking that portrays suffering as a disguised blessing and a fertile ground for change, growth, and transformations is age-old. Different religions have also echoed this message for thousands of years. In the mid-1990s, two psychologists by the name Tedeschi and Calhoun coined a term for it — Post Traumatic Growth (PTG). The idea of PTG is based on the premise that following adversity — whether it’s divorce, illness, or the loss of a loved one — individuals are capable of not only reverting to their previous level of functioning but also experience significant growth in different area of their lives. Encompassed within this theory exists everything we all like to hear — an enhanced sense of agency, personal strength, spiritual development, recognition of new possibilities, and so on. In other words, what this view argues is that when the long night ends, you will come out a different, better, and stronger person. I do believe there is truth to that. After all, if anything, most of us derive our sense of purpose and mastery from overcoming challenges and devising corrective solutions in the hopes of creating a better world. Whenever I envision a world that is devoid of all sorts of problems and wrinkles, I can’t help but wonder if that type of life would even be worth living.

That noted, even though it feels good to the ears and minds to only hear of people whose narratives happen to be bookended by redemptions and seven-fold reparations, the truth is that suffering has another facet that people tend to overlook and put aside — a ravaging side. Without adequate social, financial, psychological, and spiritual support and a sense of meaning that serves as a stabilizing anchor, I have witnessed how suffering can also give rise to a consuming bitterness, resentment, self-centeredness, helplessness, and hopelessness. Conventional wisdom tells us that so long as you possess sufficient faith and display optimism, and stoicism, you should be able to rise above any setbacks or challenges. The danger I see with holding such a view unquestionably and injudiciously is that whenever we encounter people whose lives didn’t culminate in the type of happy endings we wish or expect to see, we tend to resort to blaming or shaming the sufferers. Because their stories are not exactly fitting our worldview, and that causes discomfort. This breaks my heart.

Even though there is robust empirical evidence that supports PTG, lately some of the findings have fallen under scrutiny for methodological flaws and other issues. Skeptics, for instance, have noted the importance of making a distinction between perceived & actual growth and the human propensity to reappraise painful or stressful situations in a positive light. In other words, not everyone who professes to have grown because of trauma has experienced actual growth. Their accounts should be taken with a grain of salt. We don’t always comprehend why some get rewarded for their losses, while others never get the justice they long to see. Yes, certain adversities undoubtedly yield character strengths, but I also wouldn’t dismiss the deep wounds they leave behind. As much as people would like me to believe that my gains are always worth my scars, in some cases, I would gladly return the lemonade if it meant not having the pain any longer.

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