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Archive for the ‘Personal Development’ Category

I thought I’d write today about self care, since I’m in the middle of a move, and moving is on that list of highly stressful life stuff, which means self care is something that I’ve been making extra effort to pay attention to right now. And it’s actually working; my stress levels are on the high side but not crazy high, and I have been having cheerful and happy times in spite of the move, and without that weird frantic edge that signals the presence of overwhelm.

So here are some self care things I’ve been doing:

1. I talk about the move. Whenever I want (within reason). This is huge because it means I’m getting emotional support during a high stress time. I’m getting to vent, I’m getting feedback about what’s going on, I’m getting comfort when I need comfort and celebratory time to help me remain positive about all the good things this move is going to bring. And it’s such a relief to have people know what’s going on with me.

2. I ask for help. This past weekend, my friends came over and helped me pack my entire place. In mere hours they completed a job that would have taken me days and days and reduced me to an incoherent, exhausted, and injured person. One of my best friends came with me to see the place I ultimately decided to rent to give me a second opinion. Other friends have been giving me information about the neighborhood and reaching out to give me doses of moral support. Feeling so supported and cared for definitely reduces the stress I’m feeling.

3. I fight the impulse to be frugal. When I know something is going to be expensive (like, say, moving), my first impulse is to do whatever it takes to save as much money as possible. This attitude puts a lot of additional stress on me, to put it mildly. And it’s so much easier to be frugal when you’re not in the middle of a mini-crisis. So I’ve been allowing myself to hire the movers who are slightly pricier than I feel completely happy with, and to pay for extra body work so I don’t fall apart physically, and to spend money to make problems less huge.

4. I make sure I have time for classic self care. Did I have a Gilmore Girls marathon, complete with frozen pizza and strange pie, a few nights ago? You bet I did, and I appreciated the energizing alone time. I’ve also been prioritizing sleep, walks and snuggle time with Nala, and hot tub time.

One of the pillars of my self care routine.

One of the pillars of my self care routine.

5. I take advantage of focus but rein in bigger ambitions. Things are going so well, I think to myself, perhaps I could up my daily word count, or query more agents, or do some more semi-stressful social things. And then I realize that no, instead I can appreciate that things are going well and keep the pace I set myself, while resisting the temptation to push myself too hard. I don’t have to do all the things right now. I can focus on my five top priorities and let the rest go. (For those curious, those are moving, novel, Nala, personal growth/care, and friends.)

6. I give myself a reward. When the move is completely over, I get to go to Seattle for a week. Thanks to frequent flyer miles and wonderful friends, I have an amazing trip to look forward to. So whenever I think, “Ugh, I hate moving,” I can then counter with, “But then I’m going to Seattle!” And then I can add on, “Plus my friends are fabulous! And I love the novel I’m writing!” Which makes it really hard to spiral into serious negativity. So maybe this one isn’t so much about giving myself a reward and more about feeling gratitude.

Of course, none of this would be as effective without this last one:

7. I clean up my life in the hopes that one crisis/setback won’t set off a chain reaction. I spend time with people who are good to me. I set and hold boundaries. I cultivate good things so it is easy to find gratitude.

Here’s to leveling up with my self care.

 

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I am not in a good mood right now.

I have spent the last few weeks dealing with my landlord and his real estate agent, both of whom act like they’re doing me huge favors by, say, not illegally breaking my lease or being willing to pay for professional cleaners to clean their property before their open house event. No acknowledgment is being made of the fact that I am the person in this situation who is hemorrhaging money and time and stress from the inconvenience.

Where is our compassion?

I am supposed to be appalled at how non-inclusive the science fiction community is becoming because of the recent hoop-la about this year’s Hugo host. Did things get out of hand? Yes. And ultimately both sides of this drama suffered. How terrible it must be to have to worry about having your win of a major writing award punctuated with a joke about your weight or gender. Can we stop for a moment and imagine what that would feel like? (Kameron Hurley has more to say about this, and it’s worth reading.) And how unfortunate that the con committee didn’t prepare Jonathan Ross for the current climate of SF&F and take more care in making and presenting their choice. Meanwhile, how ironic that this is being held up as an example of science fiction not being inclusive, when the circumstances from which this situation arose exist because of a backlash against science fiction not being inclusive.

Where is our compassion?

I recently had a conversation with a female writer, who also happens to be a mother, about how she was told that since she is a mother, she will never be as good a writer as either someone with no kids OR a man who is a father. How painful a comment that is, to tell a serious writer, “Nope, sorry, since you have reproduced, you’ll never live up to the rest of us. Oh, and by the way, if you were a man, this wouldn’t apply.” Painful, unnecessary, and untrue.

Where is our compassion?

Photo Credit: jorgempf via Compfight cc

Now that I try to be very mindful about setting boundaries and standing up for myself (go, Backbone Project, go), I notice it all the time, this lack of compassion. Some of it is simple thoughtlessness, and some of it is deeper and more troubling. Some of it is people who honestly feel if they can get away with taking advantage of somebody, then they should do it. I have been told there are entire cultures based on this principle.

There are two obvious choices when confronted by this problem:

Choice 1: Shut up, sit down, pretend everything is fine, blame everything on yourself, learn to believe your emotions aren’t valid or important, become used to being treated like there’s something wrong with you for having perfectly normal emotional responses to being treated badly, take what is given and be thankful for even that much, lose your voice if you ever had one to begin with, or else never learn to speak in the first place, let people trod all over you as you sink deeper and deeper into the muck and learn to value yourself as little as you’re being valued. In short, be a victim.

Choice 2: Stand up and demand respect. Value yourself. Protect yourself. Set boundaries and don’t allow yourself to be talked or shamed out of them. Be compassionate, but do not allow your compassion to be used against you. Trust people, but only when the trust is deserved. Love people, but do not try to save them because they’ll be perfectly happy to pull you down with them. Give yourself the compassion other people may not be willing or able to give you.

With the landlord situation, I picked Choice 2, and I am now going to be compensated for my time and inconvenience. This would never have been the result if I hadn’t spoken up. Loudly. More than once. And I’m prepared to do it again.

Where is our compassion?

It starts with ourselves.

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I recently took a couple of online personality tests (the Myers-Briggs and the IPIP-NEO), and my results have changed. I’m now coming out fairly firmly on the extroverted side of things instead of being almost exactly in the middle.

I want to leave aside, for now, the argument that introversion is not a personality trait. I also don’t want to delve deeply into the sometimes ignorant stereotypes and oversimplification that goes along with discussions of introversion and extraversion.

I have not been trying to change into more of an extrovert, but I think me doing so has been a side effect of another change I have been trying to make: namely, to develop a backbone, tone down the people pleasing, and learn to set boundaries.

As it turns out, it is exhausting to be around people when you are a people pleaser. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if you are an introvert or an extrovert. It doesn’t matter if you know how to make conversation or can be a good listener or are a generally pleasant person to be around.

It takes huge amounts of energy to be around people when you aren’t allowed to say no, don’t value your own opinions and feelings and desires, and won’t stand up for yourself. Because the people around you might ask you to do something that you can’t possibly or don’t want to do for them. Or they might (inadvertently or not) treat you without respect. Or they might disagree about how something should happen, and then there will be conflict, which is anathema to the people pleaser. Or they might do something that bothers you but to which you do not feel able to respond.

At some point, in order to protect yourself from this huge expenditure of emotional energy, you might begin to build a wall around yourself. You might find yourself wishing to be alone because being alone is the only time when you can truly relax and be peaceful. You might keep other people at arms’ length to minimize the requests and the conflicts and the fatigue. You might need a lot of time to recharge after socializing.

You might appear to be an introvert.

But as it turns out, with proper implementation of boundaries, there are possibilities! You can say no. You can set limits on the behavior you’re willing to accept. You can stand up for your opinions. You can have opinions in the first place. You can object. You can have emotions. You can leave if you’re not having a good time.

You can be a better friend because you no longer need to demand perfection from yourself or from other people. You don’t need perfection when you’re allowed to communicate and take care of yourself.

And at some point, being around people just doesn’t take up as much energy as it used to.

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Where’s Amy? Photo by Yvette Ono, photographer extraordinaire.

Let me be clear. I don’t think all or even most introverts are people pleasers, and that this is why they are introverts. I put no value judgment on how much time people like to spend with other people or how much alone time people want. But I do think that being a people pleaser can mask or change parts of the personality. In my own case, being a people pleaser encouraged me to become more introverted. But as I have been focusing on becoming less of a people pleaser, I’ve also been changing my social behavior and my attitude towards it.

I like seeing markers of progress, even unexpected ones. And I like feeling more fully myself.

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I saw a quotation some time ago on Facebook, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’d decided to blog about it for my first post of 2014. Then a week or two ago, it popped up again, shared by someone different, a sign of the resonance of the idea.

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” -Carl Jung

I don’t believe that we can unilaterally leave our pasts behind us. We carry them with us, whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we want to or not, no matter how far we travel. The past happened, and we can either deny that fact and muddle along in blindness, or we can work towards knowledge and acceptance. What happens to us does change us.

But.

We still have choices. We get to choose who we’re going to strive to become. We get to choose how we’re going to move forward. We can choose to let our pasts define us OR we can choose to define ourselves on our own terms.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

I used to be afraid that my experiences would cause me to close myself off, that I would become bitter and jaded. But because I was aware of that possibility and decided I didn’t want it for myself, I worked hard to ensure it didn’t happen. I got to choose which way to send myself. And now, more than a decade later, I might occasionally experience a touch of cynicism, but that’s it. No overwhelming bitterness, no hatred of the world, and in some ways I’m more open than I’ve ever been.

We can’t always control what happens in our lives. We can’t control the decisions of others. But we can make choices about how we’re going to act and what we’re going to try to focus on. We can’t always prevent unproductive thoughts, but we can notice that we’re having the unproductive thoughts, recognize them for what they are, and deliberately replace them with more helpful thoughts.

The past has given us wounds and wisdom. It has given us strength and scars. And now every moment is an opportunity to use that wisdom and honor those scars and take control of our personal stories.

I’ll leave you with another quotation that feels right for this year:

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.” – G.K. Chesterton

May you all have beauty around your next corner, as well as the mindfulness to enjoy the radiance before you reach it.

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There was no post on Tuesday this week because I sprained my ankle, and my head was too boggled by dealing with that to have extra room for other thoughts that I could write about. So I’m just going to have a single post during this holiday week and call it good. And it’s going to be about something I spend a lot of time thinking about and practicing: asking for what we need.

Asking for what I need is most immediately on my mind because of the sprained ankle. I live in a building on the third floor. There is an elevator, thank goodness, but it is a long hallway down from my condo, and then another medium distance from there to a car or a dog-friendly outside area. Not the easiest. And Nala demands being taking outside a minimum of three to four times a day, so…yeah. There is going to be a lot of asking for what I need, namely help, in the immediate future.

The sprained ankle as personal growth exercise. How’s that for a silver lining?

I’ve been practicing asking for what I need for some time now. I often find it uncomfortable, but I am convinced it, along with setting boundaries and taking care of myself, is the only way to leave my people pleasing past behind me. I sometimes even put myself before others now, and I feel only somewhat guilty about it. Go me!

But after a lifetime of putting others first, smoothing things over, and prioritizing others’ comfort above my own, it certainly is unsettling to ask for what I need instead. It’s not as if these new behaviors I’m using meet with universal approval and warm, fuzzy feelings. Sometimes they cause conflict! And using these behaviors in an appropriate and kind way is surprisingly tricky. Sometimes I screw up! And other times I really don’t know what to do, only what I would have done in a past that is no longer relevant. So sometimes I can’t make up my mind!

Yeah, change is hard. I’m like a toddler learning how to walk. Well, really I think I’m slightly more experienced now, so maybe I’m more like a four-year-old who can walk but falls and skins her knee a lot.

Maybe next year I can graduate to being able to run, only I’ll sometimes forget to pay attention or get too excited and wham into the door frame instead.

Learning to walk. Photo Credit: cindy47452 via Compfight cc

I’m writing about this because I see people struggling with similar issues all around me. This is difficult stuff. I talk about it with my friends all the time. And I think it helps to know that it’s hard for other people too.

If you’re struggling to set boundaries or to ask for what you need or to take care of yourself even when you’re under pressure not to, I want to tell you I believe in what you’re doing. When you’re able to go for it, I want to cheer and applaud. And when you try and just can’t do it, I want to hold out my hand to you and help you back up so you can try again later.

We are none of us alone in our quest to better understand, express, and take care of ourselves.

Enjoy the rest of your week, and if you celebrate Thanksgiving, have a great one. I’ll see you all next week! 

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“You’ve got to love the house you’re in.” – Moonface, from the album Julia with Blue Jeans On

So many flaws, so many mistakes, so many unfavorable comparisons just waiting to be made.

We don’t get a free pass for our choices.

But loving ourselves has to come first. And not just the good parts either, but the ugly, dark, and nasty bits. The things other people have been most critical of. The most unloveable aspects need the love the most of all.

Most of those shadows inside ourselves exist for a reason. Some of them, maybe even many of them, are not all bad.

When I was a kid, I heard all the time about how stubborn I was. Certainly I wasn’t being stubborn on purpose, but it seemed to be built into my character. Apparently my stubbornness caused my family no end of irritation.

I was stubborn just like this mule. Photo Credit: giuliomarziale [www.maurizioagelli.com] via Compfight cc

You know what else my stubbornness did? It kept me alive. When I was a neglected adolescent, it would have been so easy for me to become a statistic. But I watched the chaos around me, and I would not make the choice to join the downward spiral. I dug in my heels in my most stubborn manner, and I would not. So here I am.

Now, I know that my stubbornness can make things unpleasant or difficult for the people around me. I try to rein it in when I notice it or when it is pointed out. But I love the hell out of my stubbornness. I love that it kept me safe when I needed it most. I love that it’s helped me finish a musical and three novels. I love that it keeps me going when the chips are down. I love that it’s kept me focused on the things in life that are beautiful and magic and good instead of only seeing the grim and the difficult and the painful.

My stubbornness has shaped the person I am today in ways for which I am most profoundly grateful.

Let’s pick a harder one: anger. Who among us has not done or said something out of anger that we wish we could undo or unsay? It is so difficult sometimes to handle anger with grace.

But what is anger? It is a warning system. It is a red flag that something is wrong. Maybe it is telling us that we aren’t being treated well. Maybe it is telling us that we are unsafe. Maybe it is telling us that this person has no interest in helping us. And knowing these things is important.

That doesn’t give us a pass for learning to deal with anger in a productive way and learning how to read anger’s signals so we know what it’s really saying. We are still responsible for our behavior. But knowing that anger is just trying to keep us safe makes it a lot easier to love. And that love, in turn, makes it easier to control the anger instead of allowing it to control us.

So when we talk about loving the house that we’re in, we’re talking about all the parts of that house. Sure, we appreciate the sunlight and the counter space and the gas range. But we’re also talking about the leaky roof and the inadequate closet space and the way the circuit breaker overloads when you run the microwave and the hair dryer at the same time.

It’s our job to learn to love it all.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, and then today I saw Stina Leicht’s beautiful post about empathy and the fine balance required in remembering that everyone is simultaneously different and the same. So I decided I’d write about empathy, and then I surprised myself by how vulnerable I feel writing about the topic.

Heart in hand

I’ve realized lately that I have a high amount of empathy. This is not something I’ve known about myself all my life, so I still don’t feel completely easy with the knowledge. It makes a lot of sense, though. One of my strengths as a music teacher was my ability to make my students feel comfortable and supported, even while they were exposing themselves with their singing. As a writer, I enjoy delving deeply into the heads of my characters. And certainly for my adult life, it’s generally been fairly simple for me to put myself into other people’s positions and to see many sides and perspectives of an issue. It’s comfortable like slipping into a broken-in pair of shoes.

Having high empathy is a very mixed experience. My empathy has brought me many of my greatest joys and also many of my hardest challenges. At its best, it truly is a gift without compare. Being able to create connections and be truly present with people is a deeply meaningful and satisfying act. On some level we all want to tell our stories, and there’s a powerful resonance that can be achieved by being a loving witness to that.

But high empathy is tricky to manage. I’ve talked to other people with high empathy, and it appears that many of us have a chameleon-like ability to be who is required. We are the people who can figure out the right thing to say. We are the people who know how to smooth everything out. We can turn our own emotions and needs off like a switch if that’s what we think is necessary. We are the people who can sit quietly and reflect the other person back at themselves without the judgment that would make that too painful.

Unfortunately, we are the people who need the strongest boundaries, and we are the people to whom those boundaries come the least naturally.

Without those boundaries, we become people-pleasing, codependent, or emotionally drained. We can see the other side so clearly that we can accidentally neglect our own perspective or place less value on it. Being so aware of different options and viewpoints can paralyze us into indecision. We can lose ourselves in trying to be who someone else wants us to be. Nothing good lies down that path.

I’m going to tell you a secret about highly empathetic people. We want what we give. Sometimes we want it desperately. We want other people to see us the way we see them. We want other people to listen to us the way we listen to them. We want people to slip into our shoes sometimes too, and we want our experiences to be validated the way we’ve validated so many other people’s experiences.

In the end, we’re just like everybody else. We all want to be recognized for who we are.

The blooper photo: Nala really wanted to be involved.

The blooper photo: Nala really wanted to be involved.

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James Altucher wrote one of those popular list posts of things he learned from being a day trader. It is really interesting, as his posts often are. Two of his points particularly caught my attention:

  • Say “no.”… You have to decide every moment if this is the situation you want to be in.”
  • “This is crazy” means you’re crazy. …I know when I feel like, “ugh, this situation is insane” that the first place I need to look is at me.”

I like these points, and I think they go together well. Because when a situation feels insane, it’s probably particularly important to decide if that’s really the situation you want to be in. And those are the situations in which the skill of saying no is going to be particularly valuable.

The second point is crucial because it’s so easy not to look at ourselves. Sometimes we want to look anywhere BUT ourselves. But ultimately the situations in which we find ourselves are often about us. They are about us whenever we have a choice.

Even if it’s a painful choice. Those count too. Saying no can be one of the hardest things to do. Deciding to remove ourselves from a situation is often deeply unpleasant. Making different choices than we usually do can take huge amounts of effort.

Which road do you take? Photo Credit: simonsterg via Compfight cc

Sometimes we feel so attached to the way things have been or the way we wanted things to be that it takes awhile to make this choice. Sometimes after making the choice, we feel regret. We second guess. We wonder how it might have been if we’d chosen differently.

But really all that matters is the choice we’re confronted with right now. We can’t do anything about those other choices. We’ll never know how things would have gone if we’d chosen differently. We can’t go back and change things.

Sometimes we’re tempted to blame other people. We look at their behavior, and we want to point fingers and say, “Look! There is where the problem is.” And I’m not saying people don’t do some crappy things to each other sometimes. They do, and it sucks, and we don’t have to be okay with that kind of thing.

But in the end, we still usually have a choice, and so it becomes about us too. We get to decide if we’re willing to be in a relationship with this person. We get to set and hold boundaries. We get to say no. We get to say this is no longer a way I’m willing to be treated.

And what we’ll tolerate and what we won’t tolerate? The message that sends is about ourselves. So then the question becomes, are we choosing to send ourselves hate mail? Or today, are we going to send a love letter?

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Theodora Goss recently wrote one of those lists of what she’s learned in her life. The entire post is worth a read, but I was particularly interested in her #9:

“Your habits create who you are.”

I completely agree with Dora. Our habits are the building blocks of our lives and of our identities. I actually love this truth because while changing habits can be difficult, it is very possible. So that means if we don’t like our lives or identities, we can work towards doing something about that.

Photo Credit: Celestine Chua via Compfight cc

Take the identity of being a writer, for example. (How could I not go there?) Some people are satisfied with the daydream of being a writer, which is fine but unlikely to bring about the reality. But for people who seriously want to claim the writer identity, it’s all about habits. It’s about making the time to write on a regular basis. It’s about making a commitment to finish projects. It’s about revising and reading other people’s work and thinking critically and educating yourself to become better. All those activities can be developed into habits over time.

This works for personality traits to a certain extent, too. We all have our original set points for different traits, and some of us will have to work harder than others to change and maintain those points, or will have limits to where we can move those points. But we can choose to encourage new habits that develop a certain trait. I used to be quite shy when I was younger, but I decided it wasn’t really very fun to be shy. So I practiced meeting people, I practiced inviting people to do things, I said yes to invitations, and I cultivated new hobbies that encouraged me to be social. I still have my shy moments, but now I often look at those moments as a challenge or game that I can try to succeed at as opposed to a miserable experience. And really, most of the time I’m not very shy at all because of the habits I eventually formed. I’ve talked to several other people who have had similar experiences.

And finally, habits even affect the kind of thoughts we have. That’s what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is all about. If we decide we want to be more positive, we can explicitly practice framing our thoughts in more positive ways until it becomes second nature. If we want more self esteem, we can practice thinking kinder thoughts about ourselves until, you’ve got it, those thoughts become second nature (or at least more frequent). Sometimes a lot of how we see the world is affected by our individual thought patterns, which are really just habits of thinking we’ve picked up over time.

When I think about it, I realize how strongly my habits shape my life, from how I spend my time to what and how I think to what my actual expressed priorities are. Of course, habits can arise FROM those priorities as well as shape what those priorities are. I think that’s why I care so much about living an examined life, so I can be more conscious about choosing those priorities and figuring out how to express them rather than have priorities happen TO me.

What habits have you chosen to develop? What habits do you want to change?

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A Happy Life:

I have few or no worries and low stress. I am healthy and pain-free. I don’t have to deal with change very often. I spend time doing pleasant activities: reading books, playing games, watching movies, eating good food, making music, doing fun work, hanging out with friends. I go on fun outings on the weekends. I have enough money to do what I want to do.

A Meaningful Life:

I don’t walk away from something only because it is difficult. I embrace change when it is necessary. I enjoy challenges. I prioritize time for the things that matter to me: building close connections with others, helping others, working towards artistic mastery, creating things, doing work I’m invested in, learning more about the world and about myself, feeling gratitude and appreciation for the little things, evoking emotions and uncovering truth. While I still search for a balance in order to take care of myself, I make trade-offs in order to live in line with my priorities.

*****

I don’t think these two lives are necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do sometimes come into conflict with each other. And when I’m being honest with myself, I know that the happy life, while sometimes tempting, also sounds…empty. I’d enjoy it for a while, sure, but if that was all there was for me, I’d get restless.

When I think back on my life so far, what gives me the most personal satisfaction are not the pleasant activities I’ve done. I can hardly remember most of them. Most of the things I’m actively glad I did were challenging and not always comfortable. I’m glad I moved to London for a year. I’m glad I studied music. I’m glad I got to travel. I’m glad for the relationships I formed, with students, family, friends, romantic partners. I’m glad I taught. I’m glad I wrote a musical, and short stories, and novels. I’m glad I got a dog. None of those things were easy, and none of them were unadulterated happiness (although the dog was close!). But they are what matter to me.

I was struck by something in the Atlantic article “There’s more to life than being happy:”

“Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.”

Now there’s a silver lining if ever I’ve heard one. Right after reading the above article, I happened across my friend Myke Cole’s essay on PTSD, and he also talks about finding meaning in the face of adversity:

“We have to find a way to construct significance, to help a changed person forge a path in a world that hasn’t changed along with them.”

This is how we move forward in the world, through the meaning we create, through the choices we make. The more I think about this idea, the more clarity I find. Buddhism talks a lot about the inevitability of suffering. But the suffering can give birth to meaning, and that meaning? It’s a truly beautiful thing.

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