When others share their views or sentiments about tragic moments in my own life, it often overwhelms me more than the experience itself. Those first moments on hearing the bad news, or rationalising the loss left me feeling sombre, but not always overwhelmed with emotion. On many occasions I’ve been able to hold back the tears and shrug off the pain, only to lose my composure through the simple gesture or words of someone else expressing their sadness at the news.
I was in Saudi on contract when my father passed away. I recall clearly sitting in the staff bus on our way back from Bahrain where we made the monthly trip to have our visas renewed. It was late in the evening when I received the text message from South Africa. My father had passed away. He was ill for some time after surviving a stroke two years earlier, and he finally succumbed to the illness. I stared almost disbelievingly at the message, but managed to maintain my composure.
After absorbing the impact of the news, I reached over to a close colleague and showed him the message. He reached out and placed his hand on my shoulder. Only then did the gravity of what had happened hit me. Before that moment, it was just bad news. When he rested his hand on my shoulder, it somehow brought to reality the loss.
Despite never having a really meaningful or fulfilling relationship with my father, he was a critical influence in my life, and continues to be so. My relationship with him reminded me of something I had heard from a man that was facilitating a leadership course that I had attended early in my career. He said that his father had been the greatest influence in his life. His father always sat in his arm chair day after day and did nothing but page through the daily newspaper. That spurred him on to commit to never be that way, and so his father’s lethargy drove him to achieve great goals and aspirations in his life.
I’ve often overlooked some of the lessons I’ve learnt from unpleasant experiences and relationships in my life. By far, the most character defining moments for me have always been in times of hardship and great personal strife. Those moments and lessons would have been wasted if I chose to block it out with the anti-depressant medication or other escapist actions that many recommended at the time. I chose not to numb myself to the pain of what was happening. Instead, I immersed myself like a martyr wanting to feel every emotion and every sensation of pain and release, of heartache and joy. And I remained deliberately sober throughout because those were the only opportunities that truly provided me with insight into what truly lies behind the anger and futility in the actions of others. In seeking to understand my own weaknesses and emotions during those trying times, I emerged with an understanding and appreciation for human angst that I would otherwise never have acquired.
For this reason, I’ve grown to appreciate the struggles of others, and more importantly, I’ve realised that it can always get worse. No matter how bad my situation was, what appeared to be the most intensely despairing experience at the time is just another life lesson now, with each new experience raising my ability to feel joy and pain at a level of intensity that no drug-induced flight of fancy could ever produce.