Jonathan Delavan reflects on the problem of suffering and what we can do differently about it.
To be human is to cause and endure suffering. This simple statement of life is often the hardest to accept. We would much rather avoid or deny this basic reality than confront it head on. For many, we learn to cope with life by becoming a particular “ego” such as the hapless victim, the conquering maverick, the apathetic cynic, the fleeting hedonist or the self-righteous conservative/liberal, and so on. These “egos” — and there are many variants and manifestations beyond the ones I listed — often fixate on either the enduring or the causing of suffering or tries to avoid both elements altogether. I’ve come to learn that regardless of which side of the coin one tends to focus on, to deny any aspect of suffering is ultimately to have an incomplete perspective of life.
Suffering takes on many forms. It is most recognizable in its opaque forms (e.g. bodily injury, illness, deformities, etc.), but the majority of suffering often comes in its more subtle varieties (i.e. shame, not feeling wanted or loved by others). All of us experience the full spectrum of suffering throughout our lifetimes by directly experiencing them as well as observing those around us endure and cause suffering.
The point I’m making here is that suffering is both universal and unavoidable. That is the “inconvenient truth” of life!
I have wrestled with the reality of suffering both consciously and unconsciously throughout my life. At first, I understood it through the Christian doctrine of “original sin” — the belief that everyone is inherently sinful, selfish, and all-around evil. While I believe there is some truth to this doctrine, looking back on my life, I can see it has done me far more harm than good in how it was explained to me and “enforced” during my childhood and adolescence.
In short, this all-encompassing religious doctrine quickly became the primary filter by which I lived my life and interacted with others. The consequences of this condemning perspective meant that I endeavored to, at best avoid and at worst limit, any and all suffering I may endure or inflict in my lifetime. Unfortunately, my conscious and subconscious obsession with the avoidance and limitation of my suffering only exacerbated what suffering I did experience and inflict. Oh the irony! So I, too, ended up adopting many of those “egos” in my desperate attempts to cope with the seemingly unbearable.
I first began to question this self-deceiving irony when I heard a passing line from a Japanese animated movie a few years ago. Here is the quote:
“There are two types of escape [from suffering]: Escape without a purpose, and escape with a purpose. The former is called “floating”, and the latter, “flying”. Whichever you choose your overlooking view to be, it’s your decision to make. But if you allow your guilty conscience to dictate that choice, you’d be doing the wrong thing. Because rather than choose our path based on the sins we bear, we must bear our sins along the path that we’ve chosen.”
– Aozaki Touko, The Garden of Sinners: Thanatos
I emphasize the last sentence because that line hit me like a ton of bricks. As I contemplated it over the years, I slowly realized that I have been allowing my “sins”, my suffering, to determine how I lived rather than living my life fully while taking responsibility for my actions, bearing my suffering without obsessively trying to avoid or limit it. That statement is still mind-blowing for me to say!
How can we cope with the problem of causing and enduring suffering in our lives? The only sufficient answer for all of us is to accept suffering as a fact of life while owning our particular experiences of suffering. Granted, making this drastic change in one’s life is far easier said than done; for as Henri Nouwen needed to remind himself, “There is great pain and suffering in the world. But the pain hardest to bear is your own.” But that is the only workable answer to the problem of suffering, in my humble opinion. Otherwise, we end up relying on one of those “egos” that ultimately magnifies the suffering we unavoidably inflict and endure.
I am not alone in coming to this conclusion. The Buddha includes the reality of suffering as the very first of his Noble Truths. Modern saints like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa all condemned unnecessary suffering humans can do to each other while promoting social justice, mercy, and a return of social ethics. Jesus acknowledged the suffering around him and spent most of his ministry addressing it in various meaningful and transformative examples according to the canonical Gospels. Legendary civil rights leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela advocated for the alleviation of people’s unjust suffering without using such pain as an excuse to inflict more suffering on others. So I’m not sharing anything new about suffering and how we can bear it; we just tend to forget that there is another way—a better, healthier, transformative way—to deal with suffering.
On the practical level, how we individually accept suffering and learn how to own our suffering will ultimately be unique for each of us. Again, suffering is universal and unavoidable, but how we experience it, understand it, transmit it, and hopefully transform it is as unique to each person as his/her own fingerprints. Nevertheless, that does not mean we cannot learn from others in how they accept and bear their own suffering. Therein lies the importance of significant others, mutuality, and listening as effective means by which we eventually learn how best to accept and bear our particular suffering. Despite the unrealistic expectations of the “man box”, we do not learn and develop this crucial life lesson all on our own—that’s simply impossible!
To be human is to cause and endure suffering. But that does not mean they have to define our life, make our choices for us, or determine how we see and relate to others and ourselves; because rather than choose our path in life based on the suffering we bear, we must bear our suffering along the path that we choose for ourselves. Acceptance and ownership of suffering allows such suffering to become fruitful soil for new life and for possibilities to bloom, but to do so will require courage, guidance, and self-compassion. It is not easy and it will take a lifetime to develop and practice, but it is the only way to truly live a liberated, transformative life that can be filled with suffering.
“Rejoice every time you discover a new imperfection,” suggested the 18th century Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre Caussade. If we find ourselves getting impatient, Caussade counseled, we can try to bear our impatience patiently. If we lose our tranquility, we can endure that loss tranquilly. If we get angry, we ought not get angry with ourselves for getting angry. If we are not content, we can try to be content with out discontent… The caution “Don’t fuss too much about yourself” sums up Caussade’s ultimate spiritual counsel.
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