Suffering is a profound mystery. If you ever meet anyone who can explain it to you, all neat and tidy, run away. Especially if they are trying to sell you CDs and a workbook in an infomercial.
Authentic spirituality doesn't explain suffering. It courageously acknowledges it. "Life is suffering," said the Buddha (The Four Noble Truths). "Pick up your cross and follow me," said Jesus. "If I make my bed in hell, thou art there," said the Hebrew psalmist. And once acknowledged, serious religious practice proceeds to encounter suffering in a way that leads to hope and meaning.
The Romans gave us two words for suffering: patior, which means "to endure, to allow," and suffero, or "to bear up." The Greeks gave us pascho, or "to experience." It intrigues me that none of these three words bespeak of pain, per se. All three words have in common an intention and willingness to be radically open and present to life as life is -- joyous or sorrowful, delightful or painful.
Yet, most of us commonly associate the word "suffering" with something unpleasant, painful or even agonizing.
The central thing we suffer is not physical or emotional pain, but loss. In the midst of illness, tragedy, death -- in the midst of life! -- meaning is threatened, along with our sense of hope, safety and security. Our belief in a well-ordered and benevolent universe is challenged by deadly weather, accidents, evil and DNA molecules run amok. Saints and scoundrels alike experience absurd, chaotic, inexplicable suffering.
We don't get to choose whether we suffer, or always what we must suffer. But, thankfully, we do have some freedom to choose how we suffer, and to what end.
Ego suffering refers to the pain and problems resulting from the ego's refusal to acknowledge pain and problems. We cannot encounter suffering creatively, precisely because the ego will not encounter suffering at all. Oh, the ego will bemoan it. Wail and dramatize. But not encounter.
Indeed, most of what we call suffering comes into our lives as a consequence of our refusal to suffer. We suffer estrangement and isolation because we refuse to suffer the joys and the pains of intimacy. We suffer addictions to avoid suffering the pain within our souls. We suffer depression because we cannot suffer our anger or grief. We suffer guilt because we will not suffer the humility of asking for and accepting forgiveness.
We suffer because we refuse to suffer.
Transformative suffering refers to a conscious encounter with pain powered by the hope of emerging meaning and human transformation. It must be emphasized that the difference between ego suffering and transformative suffering is not found in the suffering itself, but in our relationship to the suffering. In how we suffer. In and of itself, pain is neither a moral good nor moral evil. That we are in pain does not necessarily indicate anything about us. At all. What we do with and in our pain: This may point to character.
Do you have some suffering to do? Here are a few things to remember:
Let the mystery of suffering be the mystery.
Our temptation is to reduce the suffering to something less chaotic and more intellectually manageable. "There must be a reason," we protest. And so we construct reasons. Often the reasons make us even more miserable.
Share the suffering.
The opportunity to tell the story of our suffering to a compassionate and skillful listener is helpful beyond measure. Simply in the telling and retelling, we begin to shift perspective, to put a healing distance between us and the pain.
Turn to the wisdom of symbol and ritual.
Medals of honor, funerals, statues and monuments, ritual mourning, legacy, keepsakes -- we are symbolic creatures, and our symbols help us to embrace and transcend our suffering.
Discover redemptive mission.
Many people discover meaning in suffering as they work to redeem their suffering in service to the world. And so the alcoholic becomes an AA sponsor. The mother whose child is killed by a drunken driver becomes an activist with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The mercenary becomes a naturalist. The victim of child abuse becomes a marriage and family counselor. And so it goes.
Turn suffering to witness.
Sometimes we suffer as a testimony against injustice. We decide to suffer as a way of absorbing the cost of hatred and bearing witness against the insanity of revenge. Or sometimes we willingly suffer for the sake of endurance alone. That is, as a witness to the goodness of life.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.