We are a people surprised and offended by suffering


My parents were raised during The Great Depression. They suffered. America suffered. Times of hardship, scarcity, and unemployment. Then war.

My parents' generation entered adulthood with the mantra "My children are never going to suffer the way I suffered." And, as it happened, many of them made good on that promise. In America, post-World War II brought The Baby Boom and unprecedented growth in the Gross National Product. The middle-class was, well, if not born, then truly launched. We were in Fat City.

On the whole, my generation didn't suffer the way my parents suffered. Our parents saw to that. But no one could have predicted the devastating consequences of this time of abundance. No one noticed the invisible, slow-acting poison in the gift of plenty.

My generation doesn't know how to suffer. Nor does my generation understand why they should have to. Discomfort, loss, grief, remorse, the call to sacrifice, the delay of immediate gratification towards some greater goal -- such things fall on my generation and those following as a personal affront. An offense. We take umbrage. Moi? Entitlement takes the place of spiritual depth. We're soft.

We whine a lot. And whining is antithetical to living well.

To this day I can look in a pantry, scowl and say, "There's nothing to eat." My mother can look in that same pantry and create a 3-square meal.

An ironic consequence results for a people who do not know how to suffer, for people who insist there are alternatives to suffering, for people who are insulted in principle when beset by suffering. The consequence? We suffer!

Write this down:  Most of what we call 'suffering' comes into our lives as a consequence of our refusal to suffer.

We suffer estrangement and isolation, a trail of fragmented relationships because we refuse to suffer the joy, the struggles, and the occasional terror of great intimacy. We suffer chemical addiction to avoid suffering some pain or emptiness in our soul. We suffer depression because we cannot suffer our anger or grief. Our children suffer from monstrous brattiness when we refuse to suffer their unhappiness at the hands of consistent structure, discipline, and high expectations. We suffer guilt because we will not suffer the humility of asking for and accepting forgiveness.

This list could go on and on. We suffer because we refuse to suffer. We don't know how. We don't understand why we should have to.

I think about this often, especially in my work. "Oh, what a nice job you have," people tell me. "You help people feel better." And, inside, I always think, "Uh, no." Actually, much of the time, I help people feel terrible. That is, I help them tell themselves the truth about their suffering. Their anger. Hurt. Grief. Guilt. Shame. Illness. Injustice. Emptiness. Meaninglessness.

Only then can people feel better. Only after they face themselves as they are. Face life as life is. And life contains suffering. The backdrop of every authentic and worthwhile joy.

No one is more miserable than he who does not yet know he is miserable.

I think about this as I listen to Congress negotiate Wall Street's guh-jillion dollar bailout. And I think to myself, wow, how can so many smart people actually believe so deeply that we can put off indefinitely our day of reckoning. The whole thing is a house of cards. I often think that, in my lifetime, I could likely live through a national economic disaster that would make The Great Depression look like a picnic.

It's not like I'm not doing my part. I stimulated the economy by cashing my economic stimulus check, though I'll be damned if I can remember what I used it for. And I just today put 850 more dollars on my credit card to fix the driver's side door/mirror of my son's car. Seemed important. Not sure I can articulate why.

My friend sends me a photo from India. She teaches Indian orphans. The kids sleep on concrete floors. Without mats. Without pillows. In the photo she's surrounded by 14 children whose smiles could knock planets out of orbit. Their eyes dance. She tells me she's never been around children with such imagination and spontaneous enthusiasm. And in the midst of such abject poverty.

My kids consider it a near crisis when their PS3 malfunctions.

I'm not saying that there is any inherent virtue in poverty, because there is not. But I think some very difficult times are coming. And, frankly, should come. In some ways I will be relieved to welcome it.

There will be gifts in the hardships. But only after we get over being surprised and offended that choices have consequences. and, even when you make all the right choices, you can still find yourself suffering.