Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”helen keller
The other night I woke from a sound sleep in pain, a nondescript, full-body pain radiating from my legs; I am not sure if I groaned when I awoke or if I awoke from the sound of my own whimpering but in the moment I became conscious a thought flashed through my mind, “What is the point of this suffering?”
I was agitated and uncomfortable but a reply came as spontaneously as the question itself, more on that in a moment…
Philosophically, I have taken a stand (with myself) and do not permit myself to ask the question “Why me?” I suppose because the rational part of my brain knows that the question could just as easily be, “Why NOT me?” Further, I believe that asking “Why me?” is a question fraught with pitfalls, not the least of which, I worry I will begin to feel sorry for myself which could lead to feeling worse about my situation. As the Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying:
Too much self-centered attitude, you see, brings, you see, isolation. Result: loneliness, fear, anger. The extreme self-centered attitude is the source of suffering.”Dalai lama
So Then of Course, There is Perspective
Along those same lines, I also try to keep things in perspective. Even when my situation seems bad, I know that others have and will endure far more than I have (or likely will) with both courage and grace. Don’t get me wrong, I often get tired of my situation, feel irritable from pain or anxieties, and at times feel lonely and misunderstood. The thing is, I try hard not to dwell in these darker places.
I guess that is why I surprised myself a little with that question in the wee hours that night. Was it a spontaneous thought borne from discomfort, or have I been subconsciously dwelling on that question, “What is the point?”
I want to preface what comes next by saying that I am not a Catholic, but have attended many Roman Catholic masses over the years. What popped into my brain in the moment after my question was a passage from the Peace Prayer of Saint Frances of Assisi, “Make me a channel of your peace, Where there is hatred let me sow love… Where there is despair, hope, Where there is darkness, light, Where there is sadness, joy… Grant that I may not so much seek, to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand…” and so on.
No, it isn’t really an answer, at least not a direct one. But, the Peace Prayer (which history, it turns out, is not at all sure was written by St. Francis himself) caused me to speculate that I should put the suffering of others before my own. That somehow through my experience I may be better able to transform what would have been only sympathy to greater empathy.
Leaders, teachers and philosophers from the Dalai Lama to Viktor Frankl and Nelson Mandela have weighed in on this topic of suffering. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes:
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”Viktor e. frankl
If, as the Dalai Lama states, the source of human suffering is a self-centred attitude, could it be that suffering as a route to empathy can help us to take the focus off of our own pain, thereby, mitigating our suffering? That perhaps instances of suffering can be the remedy for human suffering? Confusing, and may seem like quite a stretch, but the church I was raised in we were taught that the suffering of Christ brought with it healing to his people. According to the Bible, 1 Peter 2:24 states, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” The Christian community is divided on whether this refers to physical and/or spiritual healing, but in my home we were taught it referred to both.
Then there is the Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who says, “We have the tendency to run away from suffering and to look for happiness. But, in fact, if you have not suffered, you have no chance to experience real happiness.”
We have the tendency to run away from suffering and to look for happiness. But, in fact, if you have not suffered, you have no chance to experience real happiness.Thich Nhat Hanh
I have discussed this idea of Post-Traumatic Growth in a previous post, that I do feel like I have gained a deeper appreciation for even simple things in life since my Scleroderma became a serious problem/threat in my life. Do I then accept suffering as some kind of gift? You know, the kind of gift you don’t like at first but then realize it was actually useful, like that time I got a mop at Christmas… but worse?
Suffering as an Equalizer
Or, is it simply about accepting suffering as a fact of life? Perhaps we could benefit from understanding it is a common experience that unfortunately impacts people of all races, genders, ages and walks of life. If we were to then take it to the next step, sharing compassion, perhaps we make things better for each other. During a service dedicated to HIV/AIDS sufferers, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Mandela indicated that our common suffering binds us as humans and gives us hope for the future:
Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronisingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”Nelson Mandela
That I May Not So Much Seek to be Consoled as to Console…
So back to the Peace Prayer and my speculation as to what it has to do with my questioning the point of my own pain; If the point is to do something, beyond just talking about acceptance of suffering and compassion for others, how do I then translate this into action in my own life? I mean, the blatantly obvious mission for me would be to find ways to spread the word, potentially volunteering or going out of my way to raise up and help others who suffer: To console more than to be consoled.
As I pondered it more, I began thinking about this on another level. I thought about the people I have negative feelings towards. If you read my post on Invisible Disability Week, you will know that I have experienced misunderstanding from people because my disability is largely invisible: it is very upsetting and frustrating to be thought of as lazy, for example, when you are too weak or fatigued to do things that others take in stride. Resentment on both sides can grow out of these types of situations. What if I were to put more energy into trying to understand the other person, more than to be understood?
What about people that infuriate me? Recently I witnessed a family leaving the grocery store who didn’t feel they needed their grocery cart… each parent and a teen daughter took a bag to carry to their car, leaving the empty cart in the disabled parking spot. I shouted to them, “Hey! You aren’t going to just leave that there are you?” They looked back over their shoulders at me like I had gone mad and kept walking… in that moment who suffered more? They may have been a little annoyed but I was seeing red! My heart was racing and I felt like my head might explode… I suffered more, because I chose to. That family clearly they could not empathize with the situation of a person with a disability. If I were to seek to understand, more than to be understood would I have reacted so strongly? The prayer states that it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, so having a disease that is made worse by stress and anxiety, if where there is injury, I were to pardon would it not in fact be healthier for me?
Easier said than done… but worth considering.
I am not going to sit here and tell you that I have been enlightened by a higher power. While I am a person of faith, I would find it hard to believe that God spoke to me directly in that moment. (I actually learned a tough lesson about this as a teenager… something for another post!) Perhaps again, it was something at play in my sub-conscious mind that I’ve been trying to sort out. Perhaps, it was just a sign that I should be allowing myself to think about these things a little more freely on a day-to-day basis. Whatever the case, the experience has given me much to consider.
Hope You Weren’t Looking for an Answer…
I do hope you were not expecting an answer in this little blog post. As with the truly big questions in life, inquiry into the point of suffering only leads to more questions…
Could there be some point to suffering? I know some people will find it upsetting that I ask the question, and even more may not like my thoughts on the matter; respect to them, we all have different perspectives and are entitled to our opinion! What do you think? Could meaning or a mission reveal itself through suffering? Could suffering actually be a catalyst for peace or healing? I am interested to hear your thoughts on the subject, please use the comment area below to share.
Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.