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I have so many thoughts on my mind as I sit down to blog this morning. A dear friend has suffered a stroke and waits patiently while doctors attempt to dissolve a blood clot that could do him more damage. This came just a couple of months after another close friend suffered a stroke. Thankfully, she is fully recovered, but such events certainly make one stop and take note of the fragility of this life.

A text from my daughter-in-law just reminded me of the very difficult struggle of my oldest grandson as he navigates transitioning into high school while dealing with Asperger’s. And my long-time friend from Benton, Illinois called as she was making an emergency drive to check on her youngest who struggles with Psoriatic Arthritis. Yesterday, I sat at lunch with three of my students. One was having a difficult day with MS, another has Rheumatoid Arthritis, MS, and a cancer on her kidney, the third has several chronic illnesses that often leave her disabled with severe migraines. I sat there feeling grateful for my own good health.

Yes, I have suffered my own misfortunes: a traumatic divorce after 25 years of marriage, a son diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes at 14 months, the loss of my parents and two dear friends–and my grandson’s pain is mine too. It will go on…..

I recently posted a scene, from my Monday morning walk, of light intermingled with shadow on the stone retaining wall along the creek and mused on how it takes both to create a fullness of living. And I do believe this. But, as one of my twitter friends remarked on my comment, “I agree, Jan. I hate the bad times, though.” We all hate the bad times and wish to be out and beyond them as quickly as possible.

And, this is life, the dark, sorrowful and painful that hovers, if not over us, then just a short distance away at any moment. This is the reality that shakes and hopefully shapes us into who we are. This is the dark that dances with the light (the joys, celebrations, loves and wonders of life).

The most loving, well-rounded and wise people are likely those who have known misery, known defeat, known the heartbreak of losing something or someone they loved, and have found their way out of the depths of their own despair. These people have gained an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding from the roller coaster of life that fills them with compassion and kindness. People like this aren’t just born; they develop slowly over the course of time.

As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

When hard times hit and the challenges you face are great, you can either let your situation destroy you or let it strengthen you. The choice is yours to make. Here are some things to remember to help you make the most of a bad situation.

1. Pain is part of life and can teach you much.

We are taught from an early time in life that pain is bad, pleasure is good. Yet, as I look back over my life, some of the most painful experiences brought new opportunities that grew me into who I am today. I am sure I would not have become a well-known painter had I not suffered through a very painful divorce. I would not have become a writer of two books, had I not come to see how I had grown from each experience. The truth is life and love hurt sometimes, but they can be our greatest teachers.

2. It’s all in how you look at it.

Often we have a victim mindset that convinces us the worst is always going to happen to us. But this is rarely true. Bad things happen to everyone, and so do good things. Rarely are situations as bad as they seem, and if you remember that every experience carries with it an opportunity for growth and change that is ultimately good for you, then you can begin to see the bad times as your most powerful growth times. Change your thoughts and you change your reality!

3. Your biggest fears don’t usually exist.

Have you ever realized that most of your fears are simply “what ifs?” And those “what if’s” can be some of the biggest blocks to living a full, vibrant and joyous life. Most fears are ungrounded in any sort of reality. Let go of fear and deal with “what is.” After all, that is more than enough.

4. You are growing through experience.

Experience is our greatest teacher. When you stop expecting things to be a certain way, you can appreciate them for what they are. Ultimately you will realize that life’s greatest gifts are rarely wrapped the way you expected. Experience is what you get when your plans don’t go as planned, and experience is the most valuable commodity you own – it builds your strength of character.

You have the power to turn your wounds and worries into wisdom if you only believe that you do. We are seldom really in control, so the key is to make the most of every experience. Everything you’ve experienced has given you the upper hand for dealing with everything you have yet to experience. Realize this and set yourself free.

6. The present is all you really have to deal with.

One morning, after riding my bike to the city hall and back, approximately 8 miles, I did Yoga and sat down to meditate. A pulsating light of interchanging gold and violet often signals that I am in a deep meditative state. But this time, the light formed something like a universe with colorful lights flowing in and out. I felt a sense of bliss wash over me, and a voice said to me: “This is your life, right now, this moment. When you worry over something that has happened in the past or are caught up in concern or even anticipation for the future, you are missing YOUR LIFE.”

Being present in this moment, the now of life, is where you live…..past is over, present has not yet come. Life is in the now. This experience has given me a very different outlook on life. When I start to worry over something, I remind myself of this meditation experience and bring myself back to the moment I am living. Be grateful for the moment. Be grateful for what you are experiencing. See the lesson you are here to learn from the experience. And trust that, as in a great painting, it takes both the dark and the light to create a powerful composition. (featured painting: original cold wax and oil by Jan Groenemann, titled “Flooding Fields.”)