Seeking Relief from Suffering
“Why shouldn’t people suffer?” one of our members asked during a sharing circle. “Maybe that’s why they’re good people.”
The question of why suffering exists often comes up as we explore together what it means to be human, ponder how we can better serve the common good, and consider how to help our hearts grow in empathy. Suffering can help us develop kindness and compassion, but that doesn’t mean we like it. If God is real, and if She has anything to do with love, we wonder how She can allow her creatures to experience so much pain? It may be, as our group member suggested, that suffering is why goodness is possible. Yet the horror some people endure is so great, it seems unconscionable.
The problem could lie in us. For some reason, we think we shouldn’t have to suffer. We imagine our faith protects us from harm. Because we’re obedient, we expect God to heal us. After all, He raised Lazarus from the dead, so surely He will take away our physical discomfort, cure our cancer, or get us up and walking again after a head injury.
One patient I knew cried out to God, “Heal me, so I can be a witness to your miraculous powers.” Did she think she could bargain for God’s grace?
Another patient could not understand why God didn’t take her sickness away. Why wouldn’t he relieve her agony? She believed; she prayed. Doesn’t the Bible say faith can move mountains, that all we need to do is ask? So why didn’t she feel better?
Pain Versus Suffering
Pain is part of being alive. It forces us to pay attention, informs us that something is wrong. When the pain is bad enough, we will do what it takes to make repairs, to change our hearts, to seek healing. Because change takes effort, few of us seek growth until we are miserable.
Yet pain is not the same as misery. Pain is a sensation, a firing of nerves. It isn’t good or bad in and of itself. Sensations may be pleasant or unpleasant, but we’re the ones who give them their significance. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the stories we tell ourselves about pain. Maybe we believe God should heal us, that our pain isn’t fair, that we can’t stand it, that we’re being punished. Such thoughts and beliefs affect how we experience our pain. If we try to push away the discomfort by denying it, as with addictions, or overpowering it, as with resentment and bitterness, or if we get lost in fear or hopelessness, our anguish will be worse.
Stories can also decrease our suffering. For instance, one woman I met with felt so depressed after her stroke that she wanted to die. Then she remembered that some of her friends also struggled with disease and infirmity. She wasn’t alone. Suddenly, her pain became tolerable. She no longer suffered from it.
Sometimes choose to suffer when we don’t need to.
Is There No Limit?
Yet some people’s pain is enormous. I think of a veteran I tried to minister to when I was a young chaplain. In the space of a few months, thirteen members of his family died: his parents, his wife, some of his children, siblings, cousins, all dead from accident or disease. What body could contain so much grief without shattering?
Then there was the man I knew whose incurable skin disease caused him excruciating agony. Medication took the edge off, but every movement stabbed and seared. Bedridden, unable to focus in his fog of pain, the man felt his life had lost its purpose. He could probably have done a better job of coping. That would have helped. But who am I to even suggest to him such a thing? In the end, he chose to die. At least in death, his pain would be gone.
Yes, suffering is part of life. Without it, we would have no compassion, generosity, kindness, empathy, passion, beauty, joy. But can there not be a limit to how much we must suffer? In her journal, Katherine Mansfield writes that there is not. “When one thinks: ‘Now I have touched the bottom of the sea – now I can go no deeper,’ one goes deeper.” 
To Eradicate Suffering
We’d love it if there were a bottom, a place beneath which we could not go. Certainly, the disparity in suffering does not seem fair. Why do some people have many gifts and few torments while others experience loss upon loss?
But all of us face one kind of suffering or another. Our bodies fall apart, our loved ones die, accidents deform us, disasters destroy our homes, friends betray us. For life to exist, it can be no other way. Whether physically or spiritually, to live, we must die. To learn, we must risk failure. To love, we must risk a broken heart. Even faith grows strong only through doubt.
Given this, can we say that a certain amount of hurt is acceptable, but more is not? Who gets to decide, and what would we do about it, anyway? We already look for someone to blame for our ill fortune. If we can figure out who’s at fault, then maybe we can punish them and make things better. We get angry at God, immigrants, the government, the police, the Chinese, our lawyers, our parents, the protesters, white men, greenhouse gasses, the pandemic.
Finding a scapegoat, though, doesn’t make us feel better. We’ve projected our feelings onto someone else, but they’re still there. On the other hand, we can find solutions to problems. A vaccine could stop the coronavirus, and legislation could reduce our dependence on oil. We can lock up perpetrators, dethrone dictators, reject dysfunctional family members, and eat everything the experts tell us to. Even so, and suffering will not go away.
Maybe That’s Why They’re Good
And maybe suffering shouldn’t go away. We already decided that if we didn’t suffer, we wouldn’t learn compassion. How would we know how to ease our pain, find peace in the midst of chaos, live gratefully in the moment, smile from a deep and patient heart? When we nurture others, we nurture ourselves, but if no one suffered, would we understand that?
“Why shouldn’t people suffer? Maybe that’s why they’re good people.”
Of course, defining good is complicated. Sometimes we suffer because we confuse good with evil. But if we are to know kindness, happiness, serenity, and generosity of spirit, we must understand loss, emptiness, sadness, anger, and loneliness.
It is not enough to understand these things, however. We must live with them. For suffering to lead to a deep happiness, a wiser compassion, we must feel our pain rather than run from it. We must surrender to it. That will allow us to emerge on the other side, a different person.
If we push our suffering away, though, if we pretend it isn’t there, we will stay stuck, bitter, angry, vengeful. We won’t know the peace and comfort that can grow out of the muck of pain. So we must be brave enough to face our suffering, to bow to it, to move through the misery. Then our hearts will open, and our spirits will soar.
We Have a Choice
Is that reward enough, though? Who cares about having an open heart if it just bleeds? What good are soaring spirits when our body is broken?
At its core, suffering is about loss. We cling to what we think we need, yet if we could just release that which we cannot hold onto anyway, our hands would be free to grasp that which is waiting for us. To embrace the new, we must let go of the old.
I read once about a woman whose entire family died. It took time. She had to live through a horrible grief. But eventually she found her way out, discovering a new life for herself. She became a healer. Not only would this have been impossible had she been responsible to a husband and children, but she wouldn’t have gained the depth or the sensitivity to bring healing to others. It’s not that fate or karma or God took the lives of her loved ones so she could do her work, but that in the face of death, she chose to move through the pain, grow in love, and find a new life.
When disaster strikes, we have a choice. We can lose ourselves in the pain of despair and anguish, or we can choose to live again.
Time to Heal
Living doesn’t happen right away, though. The woman who became a healer first had to grieve. What allowed her to find a new way of being, was that she didn’t shrink from her grieving. She didn’t pretend to be well nor get stuck in anger. Whatever feelings arose, she honored. This was how she moved through the suffering, how she moved from misery to love.
That is the reward of suffering. It only happens if we let it, and even though our hearts still bleed, it is worth it.
No one guarantees us a happy ending. Many of us choose to suppress our feelings, bury our rage and longing, take our resentment out on others. Yet even then, something will often grab us and refuse to let us go. Life conspires to crack us open until we are forced to see ourselves as we are, both horrible and wonderful, shattered and strong. In time, we will recognize that our anguish comes more from within than without, and we will begin to heal.
Everything changes. Even entrenched bitterness becomes something else, bigger or smaller, crueler or kinder. It festers or it eases. Most of us don’t realize that if we enter into our pain, it will fade faster than if we fight it.
When I was in my early twenties, I resented people who seemed kind and gentle. I didn’t trust them. To me, they weren’t loving, but manipulative. Now I enjoy being around those whose kindness is palpable. I prefer to live from a place of compassion rather than bitterness. I sing and smile for no reason. Life seems good, even when it’s not. My suffering took years to transform, but at last, with effort and patience and letting go, the pain fell away. I became more whole because I had once been so badly broken.
If we need suffering to know joy, peace, and love, why doesn’t suffering transform us all into something more whole?
It take time to convalesce, and we’re not always willing to give our spirits the time they need. To heal, we must journey through the pain. That means that not only must we endure the initial attack, trauma, disaster, illness, or abuse, but we must embrace it. How crazy is that? Not all of us have the strength to do this. Some of us are too broken already, too numb with shame, too horrified by emptiness, too sure we are unworthy, too afraid of God. We would rather flee, freeze, fight, sleep, hide. To emerge from suffering more gentle and wise, we need courage. We need faith that we will rise again, wisdom to welcome the feelings that scare us, a vision of what is possible on the other side, and partners to help us navigate through the horror and the bleakness.
A Limitless Love
All things change, even those we reject or hate or try to control. Yet when we accept the suffering of life, it will transform us for the better. “So,” Mansfield writes, “suffering must become love.” 
One of our members pointed out that, if this is true, and “if there’s no limit to human suffering, then there’s no limit to love.”
So we can learn to accept the suffering we are given, and we can go through the pain and learn to love. Then we can reach out to those who are stuck in fear and hatred. We can help them imagine a new way of being in the world, invite them to accept themselves as they are, and encourage them to find the path that will set them free. This path isn’t easy, for it passes through suffering. Yet it is worth it, for on the other side of the horror and the pain, is a limitless love.
In faith and fondness,
- Mansfield, Katharine, The Journal by Katherine Mansfield, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927, 163.
- Ibid 164.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved