Suffering in life is inescapable. Sometimes it arrives like a sucker-punch to the gut, without any forewarning. Sometimes we bring suffering upon ourselves.
Our culture likes to tell us that suffering is optional. It says we can buy things or busy ourselves with distractions, numb ourselves out so we don’t have to feel it, or go around it somehow, instead of through it. But by burying and denying what hurts we often can’t feel anything at all anymore—good or bad.
Our culture tells us to keep staring at screens so we won’t have to face anything. It tells us to find someone new so we can quickly bliss out instead of actually looking at ourselves. It tells us to over protect our children, leveling the road before them so they never feel a bump or a bruise. It tells us, most of all, that we are entitled to feel nothing but happiness, pleasure, and comfort all the time—and if we don’t, something is dreadfully wrong.
But suffering is not optional. It’s as much a part of the spectrum of life as shadows are a part of the spectrum of light. The spiritual leader and writer Emmet Fox (1886-1951) has a famous quote about suffering:
It is the law that any difficulties that can come to you at any time, no matter what they are, must be exactly what you need most at the moment to enable you to take the next step forward by overcoming them. The only real misfortune, the only real tragedy, comes when we suffer without learning the lesson.
I believe that we eventually must learn the lesson—we will keep repeating the experience until at some point we have no choice but to acknowledge it and apply ourselves to the process of learning it.
Suffering has many flavours: loss, betrayal, pain, illness, depression, anxiety, confusion, failure, rejection, shame, separation, loneliness—and none of them taste good. We can’t literally prepare ourselves for suffering, or try to control or manage circumstances in order to circumvent it. Part of the nature of suffering is in the unknowable nature of what it will be or when it will arrive. To some that is a relief, to others it is torment.
But there are some approaches we can consider relative to suffering:
Acceptance—Make peace with the unknown.
Non-Resistance—When suffering comes, face it. This will speed up the duration of any lesson. You’ve heard the saying, “What you resist persists.”
Being Comfortable With Discomfort—It can be valuable to seek a measure of suffering on purpose in order to build strength or endurance. I’m talking more about mindfulness than masochism here. If we don’t make every choice or preference about our ease or comfort, we can work on character and stamina. Runners know this intention intimately. Fitness in the physical realm translates into fitness in the mental, emotional and spiritual realm as well, if we intend it to. We should.
Making an Offering—take your pain, grief, agony or effort and set an intention to convert it into an offering. This transforms the sufferer from a victim to a valiant warrior. This is part of why I love a marathon pace band that lists names instead of split times. I would much rather push myself for the benefit of another, especially when I’m hurt or tired. Nothing alleviates the perceived difficulty of suffering more quickly than getting out of our own heads. Serving or encouraging others is karmic pain medicine; we ease someone else’s burden and magically ours lightens. The compassion we apply to others becomes our own balm.
Suffering may not be optional, but the way we choose to view it, receive it, endure it, and be transformed by it are entirely up to us.