Classical composer Gustav Mahler had a tragic past.

As a child, seven of his siblings died before reaching adulthood.  His father was a cruel alcoholic and his mother was an invalid.

Then, as a parent himself, his four year-old daughter tragically passed away, breaking his heart in the process.

As a man of Jewish descent, he constantly battled anti-Semitism throughout his career and then one day he was told by his doctor that he had a weak heart and couldn’t expect to live much longer.

In the midst of such pain and tragedy, Mahler was also able to find moments of joy in his life.

As his health deteriorated, he wrote his ninth symphony.

It is a masterpiece that contains elements of the sadness that had surrounded him so often, but also has lighter, more joyful moments interspersed into the score.

With a life of such tragedy, Mahler could have been excused for allowing his past to define him.

He could have believed that nothing was going to go right for him and wallowed in a life of mediocrity.

He could have given up on his dreams of being a composer and conductor.

But he embraced his past, allowing it to become a part of his life’s work without it taking over.  He incorporated the good and bad into his music and significantly impacted the world.

We all have a past.

For some people it is as genuinely tragic as Mahler’s.

For some people the circumstances are less dramatic, but the pain is still very real.

We can allow such pain to cripple us permanently, utilising the seemingly valid excuse that life has given us that it’s all too hard.

Such experiences can end up defining us.  We see ourselves as the divorced, the sacked employee, the abused or the abandoned.

Or we can allow the events of the past to refine us.

Incorporating our experiences into our work, learning from the past and building our resilience.

In doing so, we can achieve remarkable things in spite of, and perhaps because of, the pain from our past.

As you look back on your past, does it define you or refine you?

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