How A Sunset Saved My Life
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
It’s the night before my 26th birthday. And as I hang on my beloved gymnastic rings besides the Tenerife shore, watching a breath-taking sunset unfold before my eyes, I find myself in a reflective mood.
Sunsets tend to have that effect on me.
Let me share a short story with you.
When I was 19 years old and beginning my 3rd year at Cambridge University, I experienced the toughest period of my life thus far. I hit my personal rock-bottom. I questioned my life, my purpose, and whether there was any point to my continued existence.
I won’t go into the details of why I ended up there in this post. That will require more time than I can muster on the eve of my 26th birthday. (If you are in a rush, there's a chapter dedicated to 'My Story' in my book.)
What I will say is that my experience taught me that suffering isn’t conditional on how low our rock bottom is; it’s about how far we fall. We may not even hit rock bottom; some say that rock bottom doesn’t even exist, that life can always get worse.
I don’t know for sure…
…but what I do know is that if we fall far enough, fast enough, damage will be done. Egos will be shattered. Hearts will be broken. Pride will be battered. And suffering will prevail.
You see, suffering is not prejudiced. Everyone suffers.
Why? Because suffering is subjective. We can only see things from the lens with which we view our reality. Of course, we can look to the world around us and try to understand how our suffering measures in comparison to the rest of the world, and how we should feel because of it...
…but in the end, what causes us to suffer, and the extent to which we feel that suffering is unique to us, relative only to our personal experiences and the exclusive way in which we have interpreted them.
Someone else can tell us that we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. But it’s irrelevant – if it feels like a mountain in our reality, it is a mountain.
And we are the only ones who can climb it and conquer it.
Sometimes that involves changing our lens of reality. Sometimes it just takes time and perspective for the mountain to reduce in size. Sometimes the mountain just gets bigger and bigger…
Regardless, either we conquer it, or it conquers us.
So, I admit it.
I had been flying very high. And I fell very far in a very short time.
I would come back to my room, night after night, and feel sorry for myself and my misfortune. I didn’t drink alcohol. I didn’t take drugs. I just wallowed in my pit of suffering, feeling sorry for myself and the problems I was dealing with. Sometimes I would feel frustrated at my inability to move beyond it, berating myself for being weak and hating myself for being stuck in this negative spiral.
Other times I just wouldn’t feel at all.
But it’s better to feel pain than to not feel at all. Apathy is a defence mechanism that, if left uncontrolled, can spiral into the long-term state of unfeeling known to us as depression. I had had a taste of this - and I knew I was treading along a slippery slope. I'm grateful to my past self for pulling me away from this direction, despite being so emotionally hurt.
Instead, I decided that since I hated myself so much, I deserved to suffer every modicum of the pain I was going through. I deserved to be punished for being weak. And as a twisted form of self-harm, I was going to sit with the deepest sources of my pain, day after day, night after night, confronting each and every one of my demons until either I or they emerged victorious.
In other words, I cried a lot. I would cry in pain, cry in anguish, cry in anger. Cry about my situation, cry about my helplessness, cry about my emptiness…
I’m not ashamed of this.
In hindsight, I realise that this strange form of self-harm actually served me. Releasing my emotions through tears and words kept me from doing permanent damage to myself and my loved ones. I didn’t internalise my suffering. I was able to release my pain and suffering instead of bottling up my emotions, whether through tears or journal entries.
I didn’t tell anyone about these things at the time. Too much pride. But there is strength in vulnerability, and I hope that sharing these experiences will empower you to do the same with the suffering in your life – though ideally out of a place of self-love, not self-hate.
This went on for over a month before I finally broke out of the cycle…
How did it happen?
It started with getting sick and tired of waking up every day feeling helpless, worthless and weak. It started with a voice saying how I knew I could be more than what I was, how this couldn't be all I had to give the world, how I couldn't be doomed to this suffering...
How I wouldn't be doomed to this suffering.
How I wanted a reason to get out of bed in the morning. How I wanted to get out of this pit. How I wanted to live again.
That was it. A simple statement of defiance in the face of adversity. A tiny light at the top of the deep pit of despair I found myself in. A message I put out into the vast Universe, before sitting back down in my pit to await its response...
A few days later, the Universe replied.
I was walking on the Churchill College fields on a cold, November evening, mentally preparing for more crying when I returned to my room. I was tired, just as I had been throughout the past few months – releasing emotions may be healing, but it’s also exhausting. I always did my crying after the sun had set, when day had turned to night, when darkness had taken my light, so I could permit my tears to fill my sight....
But today, I was especially tired. and I found myself thinking less and less as I walked.
The thoughts about my experiences, suffering and anxieties stopped flowing through my mind for the first time in months, and I found myself becoming entranced by the rhythm of my steps. In the moments to come, I became aware of the feel of my feet with each step on the frosty grass. I heard the music of the few remaining tree leaves swaying with the late-autumn breeze.
I looked up…and became mesmerised by a breath-taking sunset.
It was the most magnificent sunset I’d ever seen. The clouds erupted in crimson flame as the burning sun carved its path through the sky. Even the darkest of clouds was penetrated by the brightest of lights. And as the sun fell, so did I to my knees, and so did my tears in blissful gratitude…
And I began to smile.
It was a joy unlike any I had ever experienced, a joy that stemmed from feeling peaceful, from feeling liberated, from surrendering my ego-driven thoughts, from being completely immersed in the present moment and completely free of the pain from the past and worries of the future.
In that moment, the Universe gave me the answer I was looking for. And I made a promise to it and myself.
I promised myself that, no matter how painful life gets, as long as there is still a sunset to see somewhere in this world, I’m happy and grateful to live another day.
After the sunset, I returned to my room with a new realisation that I wrote down in my journal: “Yes, things are s**t right now…but they are going to get better. Every day, little by little, things are going to get better. I am going to make them better.”
My problems didn’t magically disappear, but I had found a new level of self-awareness and self-expression to deal with them. I’d taken the first step to taking control over my life again. I had accepted that I was the only person who could make my life better, through my thoughts and my actions. More importantly, I'd made the choice that the gift of life was not something I wanted to relinquish or waste; it was a blessing to honour and be grateful for.
And so, my recovery began…
And now, on the eve of my 26th birthday, as I hang on my gymnastic rings beside the shore of a Tenerife beach, reminiscing on my past lives and immersing myself in the uniqueness of this scintillating sunset, I find myself crying tears of joy once again.
A pleasant reminder of how far I’ve come, how far I’ve got left to go, but most importantly, how grateful I am to be here in this moment.
Because as long as there is a sunset in this world for me to see, I’m happy and grateful to live another day.
Find your sunset.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making motivational Instagram posts with in-depth captions that no one reads!