Growing Through Pain and Discomfort
A Lesson from Stoic Philosophy
This newsletter features weekly musings about life, career, identity, and behaviour by a questioning African centennial. To get it in your inbox every week, subscribe here ⬇️
There’s a necklace I have that means a lot to me.
I got it in August 2019, right before I started writing my undergraduate dissertation.
On one side of the necklace’s coin-like pendant is the Stoic mantra “Amor Fati” (love of fate) separated by a flame and, on the other side of the pendant, the words “Not merely to bear what is necessary, but to love it.”
I got that necklace to serve as a constant reminder of something that I tend to forget when I’m confronted with the unpleasantness of life—pain and discomfort are inevitable parts of life.
Life is nothing more than an unpredictable, yet precise, repetition of highs and lows. The highs sweeten us, and the lows stretch us. It’s yin and yang. Yet, our natural response to painful experiences often lies somewhere between the extremities of complete overwhelm and total avoidance.
The former makes sense because not everyone can control how severely such experiences affect them. The latter makes sense because confronting such situations will most likely cause some pain, and nobody likes pain. Wait, I take that back. I apologise to the masochists reading this for my unintended invalidation of their existence. But you get my point.
“Do you know every battle that you’ve had to face is making you bulletproof?”
- from the song ‘I Believe You’ by FLETCHER
This lyric captures the essence of the flame that’s engraved in my pendant.
The Stoics represented Amor Fati with a burning flame because everything that’s thrown into a flame only makes the flame burn bigger and brighter. What doesn’t kill the fire only makes it stronger. In the same vein, everything unpleasant that life throws at you will only help you get bigger and better if you’re able to overcome them.
I’ve gone through such experiences, which were painful at the time but turned out to be immensely beneficial. They helped me grow in ways I couldn’t see at the time.
I’ll share two of them with you.
🤐 Battling my stutter
As a child, I had a terrible stutter. Before I could say a word, I’d sometimes have to tap myself and jump. To say it was embarrassing would be an understatement. It was most frustrating when I was angry, and I desperately needed to get my words out. But the words wouldn’t leave my mouth. Maybe one word would escape out of every twenty I wanted to speak.
At the time, it was the most painful thing. I missed out on a lot of opportunities because of that stutter. For example, I was Class President of my graduating kindergarten class, but I wasn’t allowed to give the graduation speech because of my bad stutter. I hated both the stutter and myself.
What I didn’t see at the time was that my stutter was forcing me to become a more intentional speaker. Because I couldn’t say a single word without much effort, I had to be deliberate about which words I spoke and which ones I left in my chest.
Today, my stutter has almost completely disappeared, but that intentional approach to speaking, which has saved me from many fights, persists. I’m more able than most people to stop and think before I speak because there was a time in my life when that was all I could do.
👶🏽 Growing up without my father
My parents separated two days before I turned 10. Being vengeful for the decision my sister and I made to stay with my mother, my father cut ties with us two. During the most formative years of my life, when I needed a father to guide me through questions I had about my body changes, the concept of manhood, and my queerness, mine was absent.
What I didn’t understand then was that his absence was actually a blessing. Without a traditional Igbo father to indoctrinate me into the outdated perspective of ‘what it means to be a man,’ I was able to define my own masculinity on my own terms.
That freedom also allowed me the space to come to terms with my queerness without feeling like I had to shrink that into my father’s idea of the kind of man I was supposed to be. In every way possible, I was able to become my own man. I’m grateful for that.
Steve Jobs famously said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” There’s a lot of truth to that statement, but it’s still limited. When you put yourself in the mindset of seeing every painful experience as an opportunity for betterment, you’ll start connecting the dots looking forward. You’ll be able to foresee what those experiences are supposed to teach you.
As each unpleasant experience hits you, you’ll start seeing the dent it leaves behind as one of the many cracks and curves that’ll only end up sculpting the best version of you over time.
When you think from this angle, you shift from merely bearing those unpleasant experiences to truly loving each of them because you’ll finally be able to see them for what they really are—free food for your flame.
See you next week!
- Arinze ❤️
🙋🏽♂️ Ask Arinze
This section features questions from readers of this newsletter
Hey Arinze, I noticed you are involved in quite a number of demanding activities. How do you plan your time (daily routine) to complete all tasks while remaining consistent with your commitments?
My secret is compartmentalising.
I compartmentalise everything: projects, people, and even apps on my phone.
With the activities I’m committed to, I weigh each of them based on three factors. I ascribe a different weight to each factor based on what I consider to be more important and then compartmentalise the activities based on their weight.
The factors I consider are:
how much that activity means to me
how important it is to my long-term goals
how much effort/time commitment it would require
I don’t plan my day as much because they almost always end up being unpredictable. Instead, I plan around the activities that are compartmentalised into a high-priority bucket. Regardless of how my day/week shapes out, I have to go through them. Once they’re completed, I can then sift through the lower priority activities at my own pace.
" I’m more able than most people to stop and think before I speak because there was a time in my life when that was all I could do ". This is so so interesting. And I guess it explains a couple of things about you as well.
I believe being stoic is the only way to truly navigate life's madness.
Thank you for sharing these stories. Marcus Aurelis once said, “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it."