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A Step-by-Step Guide to Staying the Course in the Wilderness of Suffering

How to cope with the troubles that don’t seem temporary



At times, we all carry heavy loads. Anyone older than a toddler recognizes that occasional heavy loads are a part of life.


Responsibilities can feel overwhelming. Health issues come up. Tragedy strikes like the death of a loved one. It could just be a lot of little things happening over a short period of time. Stress can boil over.


If we work at it, over time, we get better at coping with these stressors. We learn how to take a breath. How to avoid destructive reactions like lashing out or shutting down. How to get through the situation with dignity and grace.


But what about burdens that are longer-lasting? The ones that seem to never lift. These kinds of challenges can go on for months, years, or even decades.


Some of these weights can even last a lifetime.


If you’re suffering from one of these burdens, you understand that the typical coping mechanisms don’t work.


You can’t get through them with some happy talk and a quote of the day.


It feels like you are in the wilderness and there is no way out. You feel alone and a perpetual sense of dread.


It’s even worse if you’re doing everything right. In that case, you can’t even blame the results on poor choices or decision-making. You are diligently doing everything you can to turn things around.


And if you’re really on point, you’re not even feeling sorry for yourself. You’re not wallowing in the pain or throwing yourself a pity party.


You keep doing the right things and the wrong things keep happening.


How do you keep going under these pressures? I believe that a key difference in strategy in dealing with long-standing suffering is acceptance.


Acceptance that the strategy isn’t necessarily about changing the situation. The situation may never change.



To survive long-standing suffering, you need to learn how to reframe what you see. You also need the grace to deal with circumstances as they are.

These seven steps aren’t guaranteed to change the situation. But they will help you to cope with and accept the dark time spent in the wilderness.

1. Take It Day by Day

Eye roll and cue annoying motivational posters. I know. But indulge me. What I’m talking about is breaking down the time into more digestible pieces. When you’re in the wilderness, obstacles seem insurmountable. The challenges seem so great that you don’t see how they can ever be solved.


By breaking things down by the day, you take the pressure off. You don’t need to do anything other than win the day. And if the day seems like too much, then break it down further. Win the morning, the hour, the small task.


From experience, I can tell you that this works. Even when facing the greatest difficulties, I feel better if I am stringing together some victories no matter how minor they seem. I segment the day into as little as half-hour chunks. I can find joy in the small victories. They don’t always move the needle on the bigger issues I’m facing. But I’m still moving forward.

“The best thing about the future is that it only comes one day at a time.” — Abraham Lincoln

2. Don’t Strive Too Hard (If You’re a Striver)

It’s a fine line to figure out how much to strive. I’m a striver. When things aren’t going well, my first instinct is to try and strive my way out of it. But I have learned that you can want something too bad for it to happen.


Sure, do your best. Be diligent. Prepare. Cover your bases and execute.

But then back off a little bit. Let things come to you.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” — Lao Tzu

One way to think about it might be to focus on giving your best effort and then take the pressure off. It’s too easy to get dispirited when we’re myopically focused on results instead of the peace we can have over bringing our best selves and then relax. You’ll be surprised how many things will come to you if you lay off the striving a little bit.


3. Get Moving

I mean physically moving. If you are in a dark time, the inertia seems stronger than usual not to do anything.


Not only do you not want to exercise, but you also may not see the point. But there is a point.


Maybe it’s just going for a walk or a bike ride. A run, high-intensity circuit training, or yoga. Your body was meant to move as long as you’re still alive. And you are because you’re reading this right now.


So, exercise especially when you don’t feel like it.

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” — Socrates

Exercising won’t change any of the underlying causes of extreme burdens.

When I get my heart rate going, I’m both reframing my burdens and coping with them.


Exercising releases internal pressures and helps to reframe them as opportunities.

4. Serve and Help Other People

Something incredible happens when we shift the focus away from ourselves. On the surface, this might look like a distraction.


A strategy to distract our attention away from the difficulties we are facing. There’s some truth to this. Part of the coping.


But I believe it has more to do with reframing. We are reframing ourselves as having something valuable to offer. Reframing ourselves as the answer to another person’s troubles. We gain a sense of purpose and connection through service to other people. Purpose and connection and sustain us a long time in the wilderness.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

5. Find Someone to Talk To

Generally speaking, women seem to be at an advantage to men in having someone to talk with about their burdens. The reasons are partly cultural and, in some ways, just speak of the differences between women and men.


Whatever the case, it is valuable to have someone to get real with. Whether it’s a close friend, family member, pastor, or a therapist.


In college, a psychology major friend explained the concept to me that there’s a human need to just be heard. Her dream was to become a clinical psychologist and she told me that, as a psychologist, her job would be largely just to listen. I couldn’t see how this would help anyone at the time.


Now I know it is of enormous value.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

We feel better having a way to express what we’re going through. Even if there are no solutions. When the problems are vexing and long-standing, solutions are elusive. It’s important just to be heard.


If you have no friends or family in your life that you’re comfortable sharing these burdens with, seek therapy or a spiritual guide. Don’t avoid doing this because you feel that no one can help. The act of telling them about it will help.

6. Acknowledge Your Pain But Don’t Dwell on It

It’s okay to admit that you’re in a difficult season of life. Lying to ourselves creates a cognitive dissonance that is not sustainable over time. Some consider it stoic to tell yourself it doesn’t hurt. That denying the pain will somehow make it go away.

I think this is a misunderstanding of Stoic Philosophy. The Stoics taught acceptance of difficulty, not denial.

“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” — Seneca

And while we don’t deny the hurt, we don’t dwell on it either. The Stoics believed that it’s a waste of time to dwell on things outside of our control.

“What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” — Epictetus

One practical way I’ve found to do this is by writing a journal every day. Journaling allows me to acknowledge the pain. And it also helps avoid dwelling on the pain as well. This is because it convinces the brain subconsciously that the underlying difficulty has been dealt with.

7. Use Your Pain to Start Something New

No matter what you are going through, someone has gone through it before. And, perhaps more importantly, someone will go through it again. The best use of your pain might be to avoid future pain for someone else.


It can become your purpose.

“Don’t waste your pain; use it to help others.” — Rick Warren

There are famous examples of turning tragedy into purpose. Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving after a drunk driver killed her 13-year-old daughter in 1980. Dennis and Judy Shepard founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation after two men killed their gay, teenaged son in Wyoming in 1998.


Not all pain involves tragedy but all pain can be used to help someone else.



Especially things that seem sensitive like mental health. Depression. Abuse. No matter the source of the pain, you could alter someone else’s trajectory. Maybe it will not alter your own but you’ve gained meaning and purpose.


Talk about reframing the circumstances. Your pain can become your greatest opportunity if you allow it to be reframed.

In the End, Nothing is Permanent in the World

Whether or not you believe in the eternal, you must acknowledge that our time here on earth is not permanent. Everything here is temporary. And that includes time spent in the wilderness of long-standing pain.

“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.” ― Marcus Aurelius

I know that this may not seem like an inspiring close. But we already dispensed with the idea that there are easy solutions to long term suffering. There aren’t and we all know it.


There is, however, special beauty in progressing through the pain with dignity, humanity, and purpose. And sometimes that means graceful acceptance of the things we cannot change.

https://medium.com/the-ascent/a-step-by-step-guide-to-staying-the-course-in-the-wilderness-of-suffering-519d4b0e32c2

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©2020 by Brent Rupnow, CEPA, CFP, CLU, ChFC