How to Experience Growth From Other People's Misfortunes

You and I can experience growth from other people's misfortunes. You and I have come across misfortunes in our life, some personally, others by seeing or hearing about these in the life of others. If it is a misfortune which happens to us personally, we may just say, Better luck next time. If it is a misfortune that happens to somebody else, we may simply mutter to ourselves, Too bad, that is what life is all about.

Few of us take the opportunity of intentionally experiencing growth from the misfortunes of other people. But misfortunes can help us grow. It is easy to see that misfortunes that come to us personally do give us lessons in life: to be careful later, to prepare for eventualities, to be faithful to the church, to our family, etc. But we seldom pause when we hear about the misfortunes of others and think of how these can help us grow in our life.

Growth is Shedding Off and Accumulating

That growing is a matter of shedding off and accumulating is most easily seen in the physical aspect of our growth. We know that the cells in our body die, some after a week, others after a year, and are replaced by new cells. We shed off the old cells and we accumulate new cells which in the course of time are themselves shed off and replaced by new ones.

Mental growth is also like physical growth. We leave off old ideas which we have acquired in earlier days and we acquire new ideas to help us live in the present. When we were children we really thought that the sun rose in the morning and set in the evening. Then in school we learned that this only appears to be so, the real truth is that the earth is turning around its axis.

We grow also in our skills. As children we did not know how to type. As we grow we learned typing and later we learned to type on a computer and to process data. Some older people do not want to grow in their skills. They do not want to have anything to do with computers or mobile phones.

We also grow emotionally. Where before we only have I.Q. or Intelligence Quotient, now we have E.Q., or Emotional Quotient. Some children have the habit of crying at the least provocation. When they grow older they shed off this habit and try to behave maturely, crying only when there is a real reason to be sad about.

We also grow spiritually. Again this involves a process of shedding off and accumulating new insights in the spiritual life. Many children were trained to fear God. As they grow older and experience the love of God they shed off this fear and realize God is not such a fearful person.

How Other People's Misfortunes Help Us Grow

We can experience growth from other people's misfortunes only if we take time to reflect on such misfortunes and relate the insights we get from this reflection to our life. Whether the misfortune is minor such as bumping on a glass door or serious such as death, we can always reflect on such an event and experience growth through this reflection. We shed off old ideas and old feelings and accumulate new ones.

Growth in Understanding. We can reflect on the cause of the misfortune and grow in our understanding. We become wiser. A friend of ours who habitually smokes gets cancer of the lungs. Now we really know, not just from hearsay, that smoking does cause cancer and we become careful in inhaling the smoke spewed out by other people. We get rid of old ideas like smoking is fashionable and does not kill and get hold of the new idea that smoking does cause an early death through cancer.

Growth in Empathy. We can feel what the people who experience misfortunes feel, not exactly as they feel, but in our own way. Doing this we grow in our feelings. Some people harden their feelings as they grow old. We are not supposed to do that. As we grow old in years, our feelings are supposed to grow in their clarity, depth and refinement.

Growth in Compassion. This is related to growth in empathy. But the emphasis here is not just feeling the way other people feel over their misfortunes. As the etymology of the word indicates we suffer with them. We take steps to alleviate the suffering. Maybe it is providing food for children on the other side of the globe. Maybe it is entertaining a neighbor next door who has lost a member of the family. When we help, we grow in our compassion. We become more and more like God who is all compassionate. The hardness in our heart is taken away and a softer heart is given us to grow with.

Growth in Love. This is the highest level of growth, to grow in love. It means not only caring for others. It means that we realize that all of us are joined by bonds that are stronger than any ties we can think of. This comes from reflecting that the misfortunes which befell other people are in a sense misfortunes which befell also on us because they and us are really one. In a sense we get this insight more easily from reflecting on misfortunes than on successes such as in a victory of a game. Experiencing this insight we can truly understand what John Donne said in his poem NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, that we do not ask for whom the funeral bell tolls because we know that it tolls for us. We die with each death of other people. We shed off our old self to take in a newer self. This is growth, real growth for us.

We can experience growth from other people's misfortunes by reflecting on them. Through such reflection we grow in understanding, in empathy, in compassion, and most especially, in love.

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