Many years ago, I met a man named Jim MacLaren, who had one of the most extraordinary life stories I'd ever heard. Jim had come into manhood with all the promise in the world: He'd been an ambitious student at Yale and was a talented athlete and handsome young actor in training. Then one beautiful fall evening in New York City—one of those shimmering, velvety nights, he said, when everything seems possible—he was hit by a bus and lost part of his leg. But Jim was a survivor, and so he overcame his loss and transformed himself into a champion marathoner and Ironman athlete.
But wait—it doesn't end there.
Several years later, Jim was competing in a triathlon. Despite his prosthetic leg, he was far ahead of many of his more able-bodied competitors, leading a pack of speeding bicyclists down a stretch of road that was supposed to be closed for the race. A van, which was mistakenly allowed to pass through the intersection, hit Jim and instantly broke his neck. Now the amputee was a quadriplegic.
Suddenly it's not such an inspiring story. Suddenly it's a horrifying story, one that raises all sorts of unanswerable questions about life and suffering and injustice. After the second accident, Jim awoke in the hospital enraged at God: It wasn't enough to throw a bus at me? You had to break my neck, too?
Jim's story goes so far beyond the realm of "fair" that it knocks the breath right out of you. Why would a good man be put through such torment?
We've all seen this happen. Destiny starts raining down hammers on somebody and will not let up. Just when your friend's cancer is in remission, her house burns down. On the same day your sister gets fired, her husband walks out on her. The surprise tax bill arrives just a few hours before your mother's funeral. Sometimes it's one catastrophe after another. You don't know whether you should duck, weep, run screaming, or just start punching in all directions.
When I face a catastrophe of my own, I remember Jim MacLaren. After he broke his neck, he fell into depression and drug addiction. But a spirit in this man kept reaching for the light—a spirit of divine curiosity, which pushed him to ask, Who am I now, after I've lost everything? By the time I met Jim, he'd answered that question. Peaceful in his wheelchair, he radiated certainty that his entire purpose (indeed, his entire identity) was to live in a state of unconditional love.
I asked him whether he thought his suffering had transformed him into a better person.
"Absolutely," he said.
I asked whether suffering always transforms people into a better version of themselves.
"Not necessarily," he said.
Jim explained to me that suffering is one of the most powerful energy forces in the universe—but only if you use it as an instrument of change. People must be willing to journey all the way to the bottom of their pain and experience full catharsis—to completely break apart so they can then rebuild themselves anew. As Jim said, "Suffering without catharsis is nothing but wasted pain."
He said the world is filled with people who have suffered horribly and crawled away broken. They never reached catharsis; they just got shattered and stayed shattered. And then there are the great masters (Gandhi, Mandela, King) who used their suffering as an incredible engine to transform into something better.
Jim MacLaren taught me never to waste my pain—he taught me to enter straight into it with divine curiosity instead of running from it.
And if you can learn to do that? Honestly, my friends, you can do anything.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of, most recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.