White-knuckled and gripping the sides of the witness stand, I faced the judge—standing only feet away from the young men who raped me just two years prior.
The sticky African heat infiltrated my lungs and beads of sweat accumulated on my brow. Weak-kneed and struggling under the pressure of heart palpitations, it took every bit of courage I could muster to keep my insides from spilling onto the dusty, cracked, concrete floor.
“And then what happened?” My attorney gently inquired, the words muddled in a Namibian accent.
I swallowed the bad taste of recollection in my mouth and continued. The deepest, darkest memories of the most disturbing night of my life escaped my lips to find a home in the ear of every father, mother, daughter, journalist, and nosy neighbor in that courtroom.
The translator interrupted my trance every few sentences with a foreign language, and with each pause I studied the faces of the accused, desperately searching for recognition.
Staring into the eyes of someone who tore you to pieces from the inside out is a strange place to be.
However, this isn’t really about my testimony, nor is it only about recovering from the brutal rape that nearly ended my life. This is about how we can use tragedy as an evolutionary catalyst to create the life we are meant to live.
First, something crucial in my development happened to me that night, and I’m about to let you in on the most intimate experience of my life:
A switch in consciousness flipped in that bittersweet moment of surrender while the grim reaper hovered inches above my face, beckoning me to expand past the confines of my body, inviting me to dissolve into the most glorious star-sprinkled night sky. I had fought so hard just seconds before for an immeasurable length of time; I was fighting for my parents, saving them from that formidable phone call. I was fighting for air, for reason, for freedom.
It was not until I completely let go, not until I allowed myself to be enveloped by the serenity of transcendence, that I felt ultimate peace, calm, and a familiarity of home. That tranquility rapidly disappeared when I regained consciousness. The realization for having fought tooth-and-nail hit me like a ton of bricks: I would not have been completely satisfied with the way I’d lived my life up until that point had I died.
Over the course of my physical, mental, and emotional recovery, I unveiled the previously hidden empty places within me. Unable to escape the illumination of my near-death experience, I was faced with a choice. I had to close the gap between my behavior and core values to make way for the life I was meant to live, otherwise, I would continue to live blindly, fighting the flow, stumbling repeatedly into debilitating obstacles until my inevitable death.
I chose to sweep the years of accrued dirt off each brick of the path I was meant to consciously walk, and I made a promise to myself that I would use adversity to my advantage.
The past three and a half years have not always been easy. Some days I could barely leave my bed, while others felt like seeing the world through the eyes of a child—bright, shiny, and full of possibility. People often ask me how I do it; how do I wake up every day with the energy to move forward?
Here are four of the many ways that helped me, and I hope it can help others, too:
1. Sit with the pain. Acknowledging the existence of darkness gave me the power to bring it to the light. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, and I didn’t always cope healthily, however, I understood the importance of spending time with it. Facing it. Getting to know it. During my exploration of the shadows, I recognized there was no distinction between myself and my attackers on a soul level. Sweet forgiveness is truly a liberating experience.
2. Seize the opportunity to transform. In the process of regaining control of my body, I recognized how precious it is. I slowly gave up drinking and ditched the foods that no longer served me. I hit the yoga mat and worked myself until I cried. I began cleansing myself of toxicity—products, behavior, and people. I opened my heart to what love is meant to be and met the man of my dreams. To this day, I work diligently in repairing my damaged cells and ask myself regularly, “What areas of your life can be improved? What is the next logical step you can take in building your dream?”
3. Give it purpose. I allowed that night to ignite a spark within me to be of service to others, to work with those who feel incomplete much like I did. Vulnerability, helplessness, fear, anger—these are the common emotional states triggered by tragedy, and it unites us in a web of empathy stronger than before. I asked myself, “How can this empower you? How can you empower others through your experience?”
4. Find a reason to smile because every day is another chance to create our dream. Every day is another day to get lost in the strong embrace of our significant other. To travel abroad and dive into cultures unknown. To take a risk and start a business. To face our fears and jump off a cliff. To cook a healing meal for our family. To dance to our favorite song. To literally smell the blossoming roses. Whatever it may be that brings us joy, each day is another day to notice these pleasurable moments.
Even when the clouds are dense and the rain crashes with the window, something is worth appreciating. No matter the circumstances, the past has served its purpose and is now lost in time—and with the future patiently awaiting the sunset, no day is more beautiful than today.
So, we might as well dance in the rain.
Author: Sara Oakley
Image: YouTube/Lady Gaga: Til It Happens to You
Editor: Taia Butler