When Pain Becomes Purpose

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Barbara Arrowsmith Young knows something about finding peace after a long period of suffering. Severely dyslexic as a child, Barbara had difficulty reading and comprehending what she read:

"If I read something forty times or replayed a discussion in my head for hours I would eventually come to understand it."1

She couldn't fathom why other children had to do only one-tenth of the work she did in order to achieve the same results. Barbara had so much trouble understanding social situations that she sometimes reviewed conversations as many as twenty times before she could make sense of them.

Though no one knew it at the time, she was suffering from a learning disorder that made it difficult for her to understand the relationships between symbols, which in turn made it impossible for her to understand math, grammar, or logic. What Barbara did have going her, however, was an extraordinary memory and enough sheer grit to make it into a graduate program in psychology. Her breakthrough finally came when she was introduced to the work of two researchers--Alexander Luria and Mark Rosenzweig. Luria was a Russian psychoanalyst and neuropsychologist who had succeeded in mapping the brain, discovering which area of the brain was responsible for which function. Rosenzweig was a psychologist who had conducted experiments that demonstrated neuroplasticity, the theory that stimulation can change the brain's structure and functional wiring. In layman's terms, neuroplasticity means that with the right kind of stimulation, your brain can repair and heal itself. Prior to the development of this theory, it was thought that brain injuries were irreversible.

Putting those two findings together, Barbara realized that she might be able to heal herself. So she began to design exercises to stimulate specific areas of her brain in order to restore function in each area. She performed these exercises over and over, hours on end, until she experienced a change. As time progressed, she could understand grammar, logic, and math with much greater ease.

By directly targeting the weaknesses in her own brain, Barbara was adopting the opposite approach to the one normally taken with people who have learning disabilities, in which a child who has difficulty reading will be given audio books as a way to compensate for his or her weakness. Instead of avoiding her weaknesses in order to play to her strengths, Barbara worked on strengthening her weaknesses, with incredible results. When I met her some years ago, I encountered an intelligent, compassionate, and articulate woman who had no difficulty in maintaining a high level of conversation even in the midst of a noisy restaurant.

During our dinner together, Barbara noted that the learning disabilities that had made her life so painful, causing her to feel isolated and depressed as a child, were the very things that had enabled her to help so many others overcome their own disabilities. She has made peace with her suffering because it gave her life purpose and meaning.

Parker Palmer talks about how our suffering sometimes can be put into perspective by the passage of time:

"In retrospect, I can see in my own life what I could not see at the time--how the job I lost helped me find work I needed to do, how the 'road closed' sign turned me toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know. On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown."2

1. Leanne Miller, "Raising Cognitive Capacity," Professionally Speaking (September 2008), 35.

2. Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 99.

** To find out about the educational program Barbara started, go to www.arrowsmithschool.org.


Originally published May 12, 2020.