GAR 93 | The Power Of Suffering

 

Dr. David Roland is a gifted writer, presenter, and psychologist. His first two books that are published internationally are his memoir titled How I Rescued My Brain and The Confident Performer.

David’s latest book titled The Power of Suffering: growing through life crises poses the following profound question: When our world is turned upside down, what does it do to us, how do we survive it and how do we grow as a result? The book details David’s personal investigation into the nature of human suffering by drawing together the inspiring real-life stories of 11 incredible people who survived devastating crises and grew in transformative ways. David not only narrates these stories, but he also examines them through the lens of post-traumatic growth.

IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:

  • David’s devastating life crisis that turned his internal compass away from his own needs to love.
  • Why some people stay stuck in their suffering while others flourish.
  • The “hero’s journey” that leads to Post Traumatic Growth.
  • How giving life meaning makes a difference for people who are suffering.

 

SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS DAVID:

  • How does suffering open a person up to become a new version of him or herself?
  • Does time truly heal?
  • How do children who have suffered greatly acquire post-traumatic growth?

SHOW LINKS:
davidroland.com.au

Listen to the podcast here

 

David Roland: Writer, Presenter And Psychologist

 

 

 

 

Thank you for joining me. I’m speaking to you from West Orange, New Jersey in the United States. Today’s extraordinary guest is coming to us from Australia, and it is 7:30 AM where he is. We have to give David a lot of credit for getting up to do this interview with me. Dr. David Roland is a gifted writer, presenter, and psychologist.

His first two books that are published internationally are his memoir titled, How I Rescued My Brain and The Confident Performer. The award-winning How I Rescued My Brain: A Psychologist’s Remarkable Recovery from Stroke and Trauma describes how David set about implementing his own rehabilitation plan using neuroplasticity, psychology, and social connection. David’s latest book titled The Power of Suffering: Growing Through Life Crises poses the following profound question to which many in our audience will surely relate. When our world is turned upside down, what does it do to us? How do we survive it? How do we grow as a result?

The book details David’s personal investigation into the nature of human suffering by drawing together the inspiring reallife stories of eleven incredible people who survived devastating crises and grew in transformative ways. David not only narrates these stories but he also examines them through the lens of post-traumatic growth. Having read The Power of Suffering, I’m eager to discuss with David how navigating suffering provides a route to discovering new growth from the lessons it brings. This is surely going to be a compassion-filled and impactful interview.

David, I want to warmly welcome you to Grief and Rebirth. Let’s begin our interview with this question. Please tell us about your devastating life crisis, and how it turned what you call your internal compass away from your own needs to love.

Irene, thanks for having me on this delightful show.

This is a pleasure.

I think we’re two souls in unison here.

I do too.

I don’t quite know where to start with that question except the obvious one, which is I was a person who had everything. I was a very successful professional, running my own private practice. I had a lovely wife and three young daughters. We were living in our dream home in a very beautiful part of Australia, on the East Coast. There wasn’t anything that I didn’t want or need. As so often happens, something comes out of the blue, completely unforeseen, and turns your world upside down. The first series of events was me starting to wake up in the mornings and not wanting to go to work. This is the strangest thing because since I was sixteen, I wanted to be a psychologist to understand human behavior and help people.

A long story short, I decided to go and see a more senior clinical psychologist in my area who I knew specialized in trauma. I worked a lot with trauma. I had this idea that maybe the trauma stories that I heard and some of the things I had seen had come to disturb me. I worked a lot with children who had been removed from their families. I was having nightmares about my own children and my own family imagining us in terrible situations.

He said, “I think you have post-traumatic stress disorder. You’re also depressed.” He suggested I take some time off my practice. I was self-employed, so I thought I’ll take six months off and get back to it after then. While I was still going with psychotherapy with Wayne, a year and a half later, I had a stroke out of the blue. I hadn’t been able to return to work, but I was starting to get better. This also coincided with the global financial crisis from 2008 to 2009.

I have a lot of sympathy for people going through financial upheavals at the moment. I know what it feels like. We had lost our life savings by then because I hadn’t been working. This stroke that came out of the blue was probably due to extreme stress bought on by the financial crisis. I had no medical reasons to have a stroke. It was what they classify as a young stroke. That left me with some serious brain injury. The most difficult aspect of that was it affected my auditory processing.

I describe my ability to have conversations as being like speaking English as a second language. You hear somebody speak and you think, “What do those words mean?” I have to translate that into my language. I have to think of an answer, and then I have to repeat it back. I also had incredible amnesia. This conversation that we’re having right now would’ve been impossible for me. I would’ve already forgotten the question that you’d asked me, whether I told you what I’m telling you already. I had this incredible amnesia.

I also had incredible mental fatigue, which is very common with brain injury. I would have a conversation like this, and then I would have to go to bed for an hour or two. I had to embark on my rehabilitation because I was what they call a walk-and-talk stroke. I walked out of the hospital. I was misdiagnosed in the beginning. They said, “You’ve got some type of psychologically-induced amnesia.” Fortunately, a psychiatrist in the hospital thought, “You should do some more neurological tests.”

Three weeks after the morning I woke up after having a stroke, I was properly diagnosed. There was nothing to be done according to my physician. I went home and spent some time recovering, but then started to think, “What can I do?” That’s when I started reading. I started talking to some people that I knew in the brain injury sphere. I gradually put together my own rehabilitation program.

I would say it was a period of about 5 or 6 years from the time I started waking up and not wanting to go to work, the stroke, and the financial crisis. We were on our knees financially. I got better enough that I could start to think about my family and think beyond myself, and then my wife wanted a divorce. The marriage had been a little bit difficult. It had been difficult during this year, but she wanted out. That meant the separation of the family. That caused incredible grief for me. I would say it was about a period of 5 or 6 years that was my difficult run.

Can you tell us what is the difference between pain and suffering?

It’s an interesting distinction. I didn’t realize it until I had experienced intense suffering and then grew out of my suffering. To use grief, for example, when we lose a loved one, we experience grief. We experience grief as a very normal human natural reaction. If we’re not experiencing grief, it means we’re not connected with anyone. We’re not loving anyone. That’s emotional pain. We get physical pain if we step on something sharp. The sharp pain tells us we’ve stepped on something and we need to fix it. Pain has this survival aspect to it where it’s there to tell us something is wrong and we need to attend to it. If it’s emotional pain or physical pain, we respond to that pain and we do the right things to get well.

We experience grief as a very normal human natural reaction. If we're not experiencing grief, it means we're not connected with anyone. We're not loving anyone. Share on X

Suffering is when we layer that pain with other aspects, which makes the pain worse or draws it out much longer. We can create suffering even when there’s no pain. For example, somebody who’s incredibly perfectionist will do a great job, but they’ll keep seeing little mistakes in it that no one else can see. They’re creating suffering for themselves. They’ve done a great job. Everyone is happy, but they’re not happy.

When we lose a loved one, for example, one of the stories in my book is about Jane who loses Georgia. Georgia was eighteen when she experienced abdominal pain. About a year later, she’s dead from ovarian cancer. Jane experienced emotional pain and suffering. I can say now that Jane has moved out of the suffering. She was suffering because she wanted Georgia back. She didn’t want to lose her. She would keep wanting to have Georgia back. She would keep imagining this life with Georgia still here as any parent would do.

Eventually, she accepted that Georgia is gone. Now, her relationship with Georgia is a different one. It’s still a very alive relationship. She still talks to Georgia. She still hears Georgia’s voice, but it’s an evolving relationship. It acknowledges that Georgia physically is no longer here. The suffering has eased for her because she accepts the reality as it is, but the pain and the grief of losing Georgia will still be there. It will probably be there for the rest of her life.

That brings me to another question that I was going to ask you further down. That’s why acceptance is the first step to moving on after suffering. I understand that because if you can’t accept what is going on in your life and you keep fighting it, like your example with the perfectionist who will not accept that it’s okay to have a mistake or whatever, you’re going to keep suffering. Have I got that right?

Yes. Acceptance doesn’t happen like I wake up one morning and suddenly I accept everything the way it is. It tends to have a long tail. I have this expression of bashing your head against the wall. I remember after our financial crisis, I would sometimes have dreams about us going on lovely holidays and doing lovely things. I’d wake in the morning and think, “We have no money.” That would happen morning after morning.

GAR 93 | The Power Of Suffering

The Power Of Suffering: Acceptance doesn’t happen like I wake up one morning and suddenly I accept everything the way it is. It tends to have a long tail.

 

The human psyche is so complex that part of it can believe something and another part of it can believe something else. Part of me was accepting, “We don’t have any money,” but another part was still imagining that we did. That was quite a long tail before I fully accepted that we didn’t have any money. We had lost our life savings. Therefore, what did that mean? You can tell somebody has achieved acceptance when they start to behave in a way that’s consistent with them and recognize that the situation has changed and that that’s how it is now.

I can understand that. How does suffering open a person up to become a new version? Is that what you’re saying? They accept it. Now, they’re opening up to become a new version of him or herself. There’s the quality of resilience within a person that I’m sure is an ingredient that leads to what you call post-traumatic growth.

I like to say there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that there is suffering. It seems to be part of human existence or part of human life. The good news is when we experience suffering, particularly the intense type of suffering that we’re talking about, it forces us to do something different than we’ve ever done before. It forces us to open up in ways that we wouldn’t have opened up before.

When we experience suffering, it forces us to do something different than we've ever done before. It forces us to open up in ways that we wouldn't have opened up before. Share on X

We might reach out to people that we wouldn’t have contemplated before. I know you’ve told me some of your personal story, Irene. You certainly reached out to people you wouldn’t have imagined reaching out to before. Everybody I’ve come across who has been through some post-traumatic growth story has reached out to people they wouldn’t have reached out to before. It could be individuals, professionals, non-professionals, self-help groups, or a new area of interest.

I have a friend who was a very high-flying doctor of medicine at the university. He taught medical students and had absolutely no interest in meditation or mindfulness. Some things happened to her, which completely opened her up to this idea of alternative healing. She has thoroughly embraced meditation and mindfulness and is so grateful for discovering that area. We reach out to new people to try new things. Ultimately, it creates new insights for us. Those insights are what I like to call wisdom. That wisdom guides us in new ways. That’s the growth.

That’s so true. Why do some people say some are stuck in their suffering while others flourish?

There’s a range of reasons why some people stay stuck in their suffering. The first reason is what I’ve said. It is that people, for all sorts of reasons, don’t open up to other people. We’re talking about intense suffering here, not just everyday types of suffering. With intense suffering, we can’t do it on our own. We can’t get through it on our own. We do need to reach out to other people. For whatever reason, these people don’t do that. I tend to find that with people that are incredibly self-reliant, it requires some sense of vulnerability to reveal themselves to others. I can think of some people who will not reach out to others. They won’t even join a self-help group. I can’t fully explain why that is.

I know people like that too. It is disturbing. I say, “It’s right out there shining for you to grab it, and you won’t do it.” Do you think it has something to do with they don’t want to change?

I think it can be a personality characteristic. We are born with personality dispositions. Scientists will say it’s roughly about 50% our personality style, whether we’re an extrovert or an introvert, or we’re a curious person or we’re not a curious person. We’re born with that. About 50% is developed over time as we grow with life events. Some personality characteristics are this very self-reliant type of person thing, “I have to get through it myself. I don’t want to reveal my vulnerabilities to others.”

Another aspect of this is people who see the problems as being out there or outside them rather than inside, “Maybe I need to change.” People think, “The world needs to change. The world is messed up. It’s not me.” That type of attitude is going to keep you stuck. There’s a lovely example in my book with Rob Gordon. He’s a disaster psychologist who goes to help people after natural disasters. He gives an example of two people, both a man and a woman, and both practicing Christians.

The guy has had a more serious gunshot wound. I don’t know what the details of that was. He gets this wound and he survives. He says, “This is a message from God for me to do something meaningful for my life. I’ve survived. It’s God’s way of saying, ‘I need to do something meaningful.'” He becomes transformed and goes off and does new things.

Whereas the woman who you might think of as the more devout practicing Christian says, “I go to church every Sunday. I do this and I do that to show my commitment. Why would God do that to me? Why would he inflict this harm on me?” She can’t get around this idea that the harm that she has experienced is something malevolent on God’s purpose. She remains stuck because of this fixed belief. We can develop fixed beliefs that keep us trapped in suffering as well.

The final thing I’ll say is our childhood styles of attachment. We’ve had secure attachments with our parents or our primary caregivers. We’re more likely to feel comfortable with reaching out to people and to be curious and to explore new things if we’ve had secure attachments growing up. When we’ve had difficult attachments or what psychologists call insecure attachments, we find it more difficult to be trusting of others, and also to allow for compassion for ourselves. There are two characteristics that can come out of our childhood, which don’t help us when we’re going through intense suffering. On the other hand, there are also things that we can work through as adults.

That’s a question I wanted to also ask you that had to do with children. If suffering is shown in a child’s early environment, how do they acquire post-traumatic growth?

It’s an interesting question and it can go both ways. If you go to a place where children are exposed to potential trauma on a daily basis, like a refugee camp where people are barely surviving and times are tough, that early trauma can harden you up and make you more resilient for later on. One of the stories in the new book is a refugee story.

When some major intense crisis comes later on, that child who has been able to cope with that difficult situation will do better when they come through another major life event as long as they’ve still felt some love and support because they’ve already developed some resilience. They know they can get through tough things. They roll with it a bit more.

Does it affect them? I’m thinking of some examples in our real world today. A child who hasn’t received love and who is living without that love or that necessary attachment, is there any hope for a child like that?

I think it’s harder for a child like that. That’s where as a community and as a society, we want to look out for our children’s welfare from the very earliest days. I was working a lot for the children’s court clinic where I was asked to assess families, children, and relatives, where children had been removed from their parents because of the parents’ neglect or abuse, or they weren’t coping. Maybe they had a drug addiction. The court was trying to decide what was best for the children. Will the parents get well again? Do we need to look to foster them out?

With children like that, having early role models where there is somebody who’s supportive and stable in their life makes a huge difference. It doesn’t have to be the parents. They are starting behind the eight ball later in life if they don’t have somebody who’s stable and supportive in their life. It doesn’t have to be the parents.

If a child has a very traumatized early years without that love, but then later on, someone does come into their lives when they’re maybe 9 or 10 or going into their teen years, is there hope for that child? Can they be brought back in a way?

There’s always hope. I always think there’s hope but it’s just more difficult. As you say, they do need to find somebody. There are a few stories in my new book where somebody important comes along. It seems to be the right person at the right time. The person makes a connection with them, and then things start to happen. I always think there’s hope.

That’s good to know. Does time truly heal? People always say that. You always hear, “Time heals.” What can help a person get through this initial survival period aside from acceptance after this event? For people who are going through trauma, and there are many tuning in now who are, what are some of the positive ways a person can cope with suffering?

The cliché “time heals” is partly correct. What happens in time is we start to reflect on our experiences and develop insights and new behaviors. If we think about the stages of post-traumatic growth, the event or series of events that happen, there’s initial shock and disbelief. We talked about acceptance. That acceptance period can take a while. We could be talking for months for that to happen, or in some cases, even years. After that, we get a lot of intrusive rumination.

Psychologists talk about different types of rumination, which are types of thinking and memories. Intrusive rumination is like with Jane and Georgia. She keeps thinking about Georgia and the times they had together and wants her back. This intrusive rumination is automatic. It’s like somebody else is putting those thoughts into us. We’ve got no control over it.

What starts to happen is this self-reflection. I’m reflecting on my state of mind, my physical well-being, the events that have happened, and the way my life is now. I’m starting to make some sense of it. Often, in this period, people need to keep telling their stories. They need to tell other people who are interested in their story. In telling their story, they are gradually achieving acceptance. They are also getting new perspectives on their story. They’re making sense of it.

In time, we start to have more deliberate rumination, which is where we’ve achieved acceptance to a point where we say, “This seems to be how it is now. What does that mean? What am I going to do now?” Deliberate rumination is about making new plans and moving forward. It’s the idea of one door closing and another door opening, so opening to new possibilities. It’s maybe starting to look back over what I’ve achieved so far and think, “I’m getting through this. I’m making some progress. Maybe I am going to achieve joy and contentment again.” We start making plans. This is deliberate rumination.

Deliberate rumination is about making new plans and moving forward. It’s the idea of one door closing and another door opening, so opening to new possibilities. Share on X

During all these periods of time, we need an expert companion or expert companions, or somebody that walks alongside us. These could be new people that we found when we’ve opened up to others, or it could be somebody existing in our life. What often happens is that the people we thought we could rely on turn out not to be the people we can rely on because they can’t handle our distress or our suffering. They don’t know what to do with it. We need to find other people that are comfortable with that, or that we resonate with.

If in this period of time, we’ve also got an expert companion or companions, then that will make a huge difference. It’s not the physical amount of time that makes the difference. It’s what happens in that period of time. That period of time it takes to move from the event or the series of events through to acceptance, intrusive rumination, and self-reflection onto deliberate rumination, and then making new plans, we can’t predetermine how long that period of time is going to be.

It could be quite a span of time for people. It’s not like everybody in five years is over it. It changes.

I had 5 or 6 years of my bad run. I would say it took about another five years before I thought, “I’ve worked this out now.”

This is great. It’s wonderful, David. Thank you. We’re touching on it. How is self-compassion an antidote to suffering? In a way, it’s part of opening up to new ways of being. What else would you say about that?

This is worth exploring. I’ll talk a bit about the makeup of the human brain. When we think about the evolution of the human brain, we’ve got three emotional drive systems. The obvious one is the threat system. It’s the one that keeps us alive. Evolution has been successful in the sense that we’re still surviving. The threat system is there to monitor if there’s anything in our environment that might harm us, and we automatically react to that. If we see what we think might be a snake on the ground, we jump or do whatever without even thinking about it. Our higher-order brain kicks in and says, “It’s just a stick. We can calm down.” That’s the fight-flight response or sometimes the freeze response.

The other drive is the emotional system. It is the one that’s about getting ahead like finding food, shelter, sex, and achievement. Our society encourages achievement. We get rewarded internally for achievement. We get dopamine hits, which gives us a high. That’s why people are high-fiving after they’ve scored a goal or whatever it is that they’re trying to achieve. It’s a real high. Those two systems tend to get over-activated when we are going through a crisis. The threat system goes, “How do I get through this crisis?”

It’s a survival thing. You’re frightened.

We’re recording this at the time of the pandemic. For lots of people, the threat system and the drive system are being activated. The third system, which evolved later in mammals and is most highly developed in humans is the affiliative soothing system. It evolved from the rest of the digestive system where our body is not having to do anything. It’s just resting and restoring.

In humans, that has evolved into the affiliative system where we make connections with others. We develop social connections, and this is the safety system. This only works when we are feeling safe. It’s about safeness or the feeling of safeness. That’s why when a child is soothed by their mother or their father after they’ve fallen over or something like that, the child is soothed. The parent will naturally soothe them without thinking about why they’re doing it, and the child will feel soothed. That’s making the child feel safe.

What’s happened in humans especially, because we’ve got the most highly evolved brains, is that when we apply compassion to ourselves, it’s very soothing. It activates this soothing affiliative system. We can think of self-compassion very simply as being, “What would I do for a loved one or somebody I care about or a good friend if they were in trouble? How would I soothe them?” Self-compassion is simply having that same attitude to one’s self.

There are ways in which we can practice compassion, and we can actively create a feeling of compassion for ourselves. In my own experience, that was through doing loving-kindness meditation when I was going through my difficulties. What seems to be happening when we apply compassion to ourselves is it’s a very different brain network from empathy, for example. It’s creating that sense of safety. That sense of safety does lovely things for us. It calms the physiological system. It calms that threat system.

Of those three drive systems I’ve been talking about, you tend to get one dominating at any time. The threat system dominates more easily because it’s responding to an emergency, and then the drive system might be the next, but the soothing system tends to get left behind when we’re in crisis. That’s why we need to actively do things that soothe.

It’s going to a self-help group or being with others that have been through some experience like our own, or they can resonate on a similar level. I found it valuable to talk to some people who hadn’t necessarily been through the same experience as me, like PTSD or stroke, but they understood what suffering felt like because they had been through some major life upheavals themselves and come out of it.

I say to people, “When you’re going through trauma or you’re coming out of a crisis, who are you putting on your wagon train to surround yourself with? What are you doing to be loving to yourself?” When I was going through my own experiences with the car accident, all that I went through, the grief, and all that, I had certain people who performed different functions for me. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing at the time.

There was the therapist. There was the spiritual healer. There was my friend who was there to listen to me vent and help me. There were these different people and they became my network. As you said, my old network fell away, and this became my new survival team. It’s very similar to what you’re saying. I always say to people, “Who are you putting on your wagon train? Put yourself in the middle of that thing and feel safe. Who are you helping yourself feel safe?” David, what is the hero’s journey that leads to post-traumatic growth when it comes to suffering?

When I was writing up the stories for the new book, I spent a year writing them up. I had done all the interviews and transcripts. I was aware of all the research, and I had spoken to the experts. I had a whole year where I could sit with these stories. I was writing one after the other, one each chapter. I knew already that there was something special about people when they go through these life upheavals. They not only survive them but come out as a changed person in ways that they like. I thought, “There has to be some name or some description for this.”

GAR 93 | The Power Of Suffering

The Power of Suffering: Growing through Life Crises

I was vaguely aware of Joseph Campbell’s mythology about the hero’s journey, and how it is often featured in films, stories, and so on. I thought, “There’s something heroic about the way people get through these life crises.” People would say to me, “You’re so inspiring. You’re so inspirational.” I couldn’t get it at first because I thought I was putting one foot in front of the other. I was trying to do what I thought was the best. I was trying to survive. I wasn’t trying to inspire anyone.

When I was writing this, I was feeling inspired by their stories, and I got it. I thought, “When we see somebody else go through some major life trauma and get through it, survive, and grow, it is inspiring.” I studied Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and watched these interviews with him. The pattern that people go through is very similar to his Hero’s Journey.

Somebody is going along in their normal everyday life, and then there’s a call to adventure. The call to adventure or call to a quest in Joseph Campbell’s mythology is some event happens or a messenger comes. You can think of Gandalf coming up in the Lord of the Rings and saying, “There’s this bad thing happening. We need somebody to go and rescue the world.” This event happens or a messenger comes, and then this person initially can’t believe it. They don’t want to leave the normal world. There’s a refusal of the call. Eventually, they have to step over the threshold, which is the acceptance we’ve talked about.

It’s a choice also.

It sure is. We usually need somebody to help us step over the thresholds. This is where our first mentor or expert companion comes in, and then we enter this new world or the changed world. I so relate to this because sometimes people withdraw from their normal activities or even their normal community. There’s a period of what can feel like and can seem to others as a period of withdrawal. This is often where we are cultivating new relationships as you’ve talked about, finding those new people to put on the wagon. We find allies. Allies are people that are trying to do something similar to ourselves. We run alongside them, and then we go through various trials.

There’s a story in my book about Morris Gleason who was blinded at age twelve at a time when there were very few services for the visually impaired or blind. He has been permanently blind ever since, and he’s now in his 60s. He went to a school for the vision impaired. He was told that he was dumb and that he shouldn’t continue his education. Most people with vision impairment were told that they were not to expect very much in life. They would be basket weavers, piano tuners, or something like that.

He was put into a factory, but he thought, “I’m not sure that I’m dumb.” He wanted to test himself. He went to night school to learn English. The teacher said, “You’ve got some ability. Maybe you could even do a pre-university course.” He was interested in welfare or social work, so he tested himself. Each of these stages was a test. Eventually, he concluded that he wasn’t dumb, but he had to go through a test.

How brave of him to choose that and not to accept other people’s judgment of him. That’s amazing. Let me ask you this. What is the role of awareness in our personal narratives? This question I know applies to both you and me. How does deepening spirituality, which takes a person beyond the self to the bigger picture, make an important difference in the face of raw pain and crisis?

That’s a big question, Irene.

You’ve got a lot of knowledge and wisdom, David. I figured you could handle it.

Thank you. I think there are two prongs to that. One is about the awareness and one is about the spiritual growth. What happens when we’ve been through a major life crisis, which upends our world, what’s happening is that we’ve developed a life story. I like to talk about the story itself being the sense of self, like this idea of the person I believe I am. That is developed over time from our childhood, from the society where we grow up, our religious influences, and everything. We developed this story, and the human brain has the ability to time travel where we can go back into the past. We can drag up memories and say, “I’m a person that likes to eat lasagna because of this thing that happened in the past.”

“Grandma gave me lasagna when I was five years old.

We don’t think of other animals doing that. I can project that into the future. I have a story already in my head about how my future life story is going to happen. We have this awareness. What happens when a life event happens is it disrupts that life story. The life story and the story itself becomes no longer feasible like we thought it was.

It creates awareness about this life story that we’ve created without even realizing it. We have to create a new life story. I’m very big on mindfulness because it helped me enormously. It is a way of creating awareness of everything about us, whether it’s our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and what we make of them.

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what’s happening right now with me. That provides the data that we use to work on. I say it’s like the internal weather. If you’re a farmer and you’re not taking notice of the weather, you just plant your crops because you feel like planting crops on a Monday, you’re going to have a lot of hit and misses or probably more misses. A farmer understands that you’ve got to take note of the weather. We do the same with our internal weather through awareness of what’s going on. When we develop that awareness, that’s when we can start to create a new life story.

I think you asked about spiritual growth. I can’t explain why this is except that I was drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist concepts because I liked meditation. I discovered meditation, and there is some good, great brain science about why meditation is very healing and changes the brain in certain ways. That’s initially why I did it. I started to understand that in Buddhism, there’s this idea that we have very little control over our life. The understandings we have about life are just one way of perceiving things.

My simple definition of spirituality is an understanding that goes beyond the everyday. It’s developing an understanding that’s another level of understanding beyond the everyday. I certainly developed that. I had some very insightful experiences on a meditation retreat. At other times, I could see that our typical way of looking at life isn’t the only way of looking at it. It’s not that our typical way of looking at is wrong. It’s just one level of perception.

GAR 93 | The Power Of Suffering

The Power Of Suffering: Spirituality is an understanding that goes beyond the everyday.

 

Developing this extra spirituality gave me a lot of comforts. It also gave me a moral compass because I decided that leading a value-driven life was a means for contentment. I looked at the Buddhist eightfold path, which talks about right speech, right action, and not harming people. I thought, “There’s a template for how to live a good life.” It would follow that template. It was a way of thinking about life that went beyond the everyday. It gave me a template for living.

Would you say it would be the higher picture? Would you say it enables people to see things from a higher perspective, and maybe not be as deeply in the weeds from a personal standpoint? It’s able to lift you out of the swamps, so to speak. You’re a little bit gliding more above it and seeing it from a different perspective. At least that’s what happens to me.

It’s like you’ve been given a spiritual drone. The drone goes up and it’s not that the landscape has changed, but you can see it from a different perspective. Astronauts talk about seeing the Earth from a distance and seeing this little blue dot. They can never see the Earth in the same way they did before they left the Earth. They now see how fragile, how we’re all in it together, and human beings aren’t that different from one another.

What I’ve noticed with people that had experienced post-traumatic growth and developed the spiritual aspect is there’s less emphasis on the I. They reduce the sense of I, like what I need all the time, and think about what I need. They increase the sense of we. We could be family. It could be your community. It could be your spiritual group. I think of one of my we are other stroke survivors. It could be your country. It’s a greater sense of we. When we have that greater sense of we, it seems to correlate with well-being.

As we start to wind this up, which is an amazing interview, another question is how does give life meaning make a difference for those of us who are suffering? You have so many people on the planet right now that are suffering. Would one of the things to help them is for them to look around their world and find out what they can do, maybe helping other people? That’s what happened to me. After the accident and all that happened to me, I became a founding board member of an organization that helped children with grief. That gave my life meaning. It also took my focus away from myself. I’m wondering if that is a prescription for people who are suffering, to find something that gives their lives meaning.

Yes. Finding meaning isn’t something we work out today and then that’s how it is forevermore. Finding meaning is an evolving process. What is meaningful for me today may evolve in some way. There’s a lovely story in the book with Steve Garlick, the economist who had a car accident.

Finding meaning is an evolving process. What is meaningful for you today may evolve in some way. Share on X

He lost his family, or his son was very badly hurt. I remember that.

He lost his wife and youngest son, and the second son had a severe brain injury. Initially, his purpose in life or what gave him meaning was helping his son who survived with the head injury to rehabilitate at a time when there were very few rehabilitation services for children like that. Interestingly, after he started to get his son on the road to recovery, one thing that happened for him was he was stuck in his suffering, other than helping his son.

One of his work colleagues said, “I’m going to this group. It was put on by the Catholic Church. It was about new beginnings. It’s for people going through a divorce or had a life-threatening illness or something that had disrupted their life story.” He thought, “That sounds like touchy-feely stuff.” Anyway, his work colleague convinced him to go. He went along and he started to hear everybody’s stories. He said, “I thought I was the only one in the world suffering, but then I heard everybody else’s stories. Hearing their stories, I realized that I could offer them solace. I could help them in whatever ways I could help.” That relieved him of some of his sufferings.

Helping others and resonating with their suffering, even when we’re in a group that is being a listener to somebody else telling their story is helping them. That was the start of his releasing his suffering. Another woman came into his life. One thing led to another, and they started rescuing wildlife that had been hit on the road. We have a lot of kangaroos here, as you know. They can jump into fences.

I have to tell you, I love how you’re describing that chapter about how these kangaroos were roaming around in that house, and all the different things going on there.

He and his wife rescue wild animals that have been injured. He says, “These animals give me much more than I give them.” He knew what it was like to suffer. His family didn’t rally around him as much as he would’ve liked after his accident. He said, “I want to do for these animals what didn’t happen to me.” He found tremendous meaning in his life. He gets a huge joy out of the work that he does even though it’s physically and financially very demanding. We had our wildfire season here last summer. You may have heard we had the biggest fires we’ve ever had and a lot of native animals were burned. Steve and his wife, Rosemary, were at the forefront of rescuing a lot of those animals.

That’s amazing. Put on your psychologist hat and speak to us about the importance of healing in a person’s life, and then what role the awareness of the bigger picture plays when it comes to healing one’s life. We have two levels. I know you can speak to both.

We need to recognize that life inherently involves suffering and it involves mishaps or things that we don’t foresee are going to happen. We know this for sure with our physical well-being. Everybody who has been alive for only a short time knows that we get physical injuries. We get physical aches and pains. We get illnesses. We take it as natural that we go and see the doctor, or we see a physical healer for that or we take medicines for that. It’s the same with our mental well-being. Life dishes out events that we didn’t foresee. Even with time, over time, and with aging, various things will happen. Healing is something that we want to see as a normal part of life, either self-healing or seeking out other healers.

GAR 93 | The Power Of Suffering

The Power Of Suffering: We need to recognize that life inherently involves suffering and it involves mishaps or things that we don’t foresee are going to happen.

 

We’d like to see that.

I’ve forgotten the rest of your question, Irene.

That’s all right. It’s something we would like to see, and people see it as something that’s a normal part of life. The spiritual picture or the bigger picture, does that help with knowing the importance of healing? In addition to having a passion for healing my issues, which has made my life so much better, it’s also because I’ve become very spiritual. I know there’s a bigger picture. I am more conscious about how I treat myself. I’m more conscious about how I treat others. I’m more conscious about what I’m doing because I know it will have ramifications one day. I will be on the other side one day. I will experience some of what I went through. What did I want to do in this world with what I was given? Would you agree with that? Do you have something to add to that?

I love what you just said. I completely agree with that. In my own case, it has been, “What can I make of my suffering? How can I use the suffering that I’ve experienced as a means to help others?” That is a very clear one for me. When I wrote my last book, How I Rescued My Brain, it became meaningful for me to think, “I’ve been through this awful experience. It was certainly a terrible experience. I’ve come out of it and I found ways to come out of it that perhaps not everybody would know about, perhaps because of my professional training and experience at that time, and my understanding of how the brain works. Why not write a book about that that would help others?”

GAR 93 | The Power Of Suffering

How I Rescued My Brain: A Psychologist’s Remarkable Recovery from Stroke and Trauma

It certainly proved to be extremely helpful. I still get great messages from people about that. I know that that book has got a life of its own. It’s doing its own thing. It’s still resonating with people around the world. In this next book, I thought the same thing. It’s not so much about me, but I thought people need to hear other people’s stories so that they can get through life’s difficulties, survive them, and even turn out to be better people. We can’t control what life dishes out to us, but we can control what we make of that. That’s a higher purpose for me.

I think about this sense of interconnectedness. We’re all interconnected. Even if we look at a physics level, we’re electromagnetic fields. We bump up against one another’s electromagnetic fields. That’s all vibration. Life is vibration. At a physical level, it’s vibration. We’re all interconnected at that very subatomic level. We’re interconnected as a species. We’re interconnected with our world. If our world is not healthy, we can’t be healthy. The higher purpose is what the greater good is for me and everyone.

That’s wonderful. Thank you. They all want to read your book now, which I can’t recommend highly enough, and they all want to read your other books, David. Let everyone know how to get ahold of you. How do they get ahold of your books? Spell it out. Let us all know.

If they want to contact me or at least find out more about me, the best one-stop call would be the website, which is DavidRoland.com.au. How I Rescued My Brain and The Power Of Suffering are all available as audiobooks and eBooks internationally. You can get that through any of your favorite online bookstores. The Power Of Suffering is recently published in the UK. I don’t think it’s available as a paper book in the US directly, but you could get it through Amazon UK or the Book Depository.

David Roland, with all you’ve been through, what is your tip on finding joy in life?

Dance.

I love that. Literally, dance. Dance through life.

I literally dance. I do a lot of salsa and American dancing. That came out of me wanting to heal my brain. I learned that dance is a way of improving brain health. What I hadn’t anticipated was the social connection and the pure joy of moving my body to music. I hadn’t anticipated that. Now, I dance with joy and a social connection. It helps my brain all good. There’s a short film on my website about my trip to Cuba when I went there to go dancing.

Can we get on your website and all of us can see you dancing?

You can.

Everybody, you can check that out. That sounds great. I would like to end this powerful wonderful interview with a brilliant quote from David’s book, The Power Of Suffering. We open up to new possibilities, new people, and new insights when our personhood is assailed by suffering. There is a release before there is a gain. This is the positive work of suffering, to knock down the parapets of our assumptions about how life is.

David, I could not agree more. As a person who has also experienced a rebirth after trauma, I know that the darkest night can indeed lead to the most profound dawn. The insights to be found in The Power Of Suffering can be life-changing. I highly recommend it. I thank you, David, for a very special interview. Here’s a reminder, everyone. You can see the show notes and all Grief and Rebirth podcast episodes on IreneWeinberg.com. Make sure to follow us and like us on social at @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. As I like to say, to be continued. Many blessings, and bye for now.

 

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