On Suffering

by kattiewampus

At the beginning of April, a co-worker who knew I was going through a rough time shared this article with me – “What Suffering Does” by David Brooks, from the New York Times. At the time, I read through it and I honestly can’t remember what I thought of the article because the past 29 days have pretty much been one big emotional nightmare blur. But yesterday, I found the article and re-read it and really appreciated what it had to say about the nature and purpose of suffering, especially in contrast to happiness. Since these are two preoccupying themes in my life right now – I am suffering; I want to be happy – I feel like this post complements my recent post on “The Happiness Project.” From David Brooks’ article, I learned four important truths about suffering.

1. I cannot control my suffering

Just as I had no control over the break-up that launched me into this place of suffering, I also have no control over the feelings of suffering that I experience in response. I can’t just say, “Well, it’s been a month. I guess I should stop feeling sad now” and magically do so. I cannot control the way I feel when I wake up in the morning, or the unexpected moments throughout the day when the tears find me, or the memories come flooding in. I cannot control when, in response to my pain and anxiety and confusion, my entire core physically tenses up so that even breathing becomes difficult.

“Suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone.”

But while I cannot control the ways in which my suffering manifests itself, the next truth reveals what I can control.

2. I can control how I respond to my suffering

I cannot choose not to suffer, but I can choose how I deal with the suffering that I experience. This does not make the pain go away, nor does it make the process or the experience easier. But it transforms how I view my role in the process, and where I focus my energy as I work through this.

“It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it.”

So, how does one respond to suffering? How do you make sense of losses that are so unexpected and so incongruous with what you thought you knew? To be honest, I don’t understand how anyone works through suffering without some sort of faith in God. I don’t think I would be able to be open to the following two truths if I didn’t, on some fundamental level, believe that God works all things together for good (Romans 8:28).

3. Suffering creates the opportunity for redemption

“The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.”

It’s not about tricking yourself into thinking that the loss wasn’t bad, or even convincing yourself that it was “for the best.” Regardless of whether that is actually the case or not, the right response to a loss isn’t a 180 degree shift in perspective. It is the recognition that, yes, this loss is bad and the only way to really deal with it is to respond so that good comes out of it. The loss itself is not good. But the response to that loss is the determining factor.

4. Suffering creates the opportunity for deeper love and greater vulnerability

A friend recently offered me this insight: “Let yourself grieve. And realize that new happy may not look the same as old happy.” This fits perfectly with what the article says about the recovery process that follows suffering.

“Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.”

These words are not intended to be a quick fix. They are not a mandate for those who are suffering: “Oh, you’re in pain? Go channel your pain into something productive and you’ll feel better.” They are simply a reminder that one of the redemptive elements of suffering is that it forces us into a state of deep vulnerability, during which we have the capacity to respond by allowing that vulnerability to influence the ways in which we contribute to the world and how we love those around us.