The Value of Suffering
By Mary Megna
We all suffer. Pounding headaches, aching backs, and common colds plague our daily lives. In addition, more serious forms of physical suffering such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer invade unwantedly. Occurring with identical intensity is the emotional side of suffering ranging from hurt feelings, a broken heart or betrayal as well as grief, anxiety, depression or full blown mental illness. No one escapes. No one is immune. So what are we to do with this unavoidable obstacle called suffering?
Of course our fundamental instinctual drive is to get through it or past it. We try to do everything we can to end the intolerable experience. In our minds we think life will finally continue once this suffering is over. In the meantime, life is happening. Life happens before suffering, during suffering and after suffering. It seems to be built into the system. If that is the case, shouldn’t we sit with it a while and contemplate its purpose?
Victor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, once said, “People forget that it is often exceptionally difficult external situations which give the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond oneself.” In the same vein, Helen Keller believed that “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened.” The two seasoned sufferers teach us that there is something to be gained from pain. Once we are on the other side of a dark depression or cancer is in remission; our being has been transformed. Where there was little empathy and black and white judgment, there is now tenderness and second thoughts. In fact, we have a new reference point in which to understand the predicaments of others. This may be considered a side effect or bonus from an unwanted experience; however this conclusion may not give the process its due. Perhaps this new awareness or transformation is the point of each and every ugly episode.
Are we then to welcome and wish for suffering? Maybe not, yet we can entertain the idea that a new outlook and approach might result in the realization of experiencing meaningful suffering; a suffering that turns into interpersonal growth. This path toward enlightenment is our life’s work. We may strive for wealth and achievement, but our soul knows that self-actualization expressed in the highest form is the end game.
So what are we to do with suffering? View it through a new lens of gratitude and reverence for the gifts it will bestow. Relief from the torment and mental anguish experienced when asking “Why me?” will be the first benefit. If we accept that pain is part of the equation of life, we no longer question it. Consequently, energy will be freed to do battle in the most constructive manner toward physical and mental health. By all means, work tirelessly toward relief while simultaneously appreciating the accompanied life lesson. In the end, regardless of its resolution, suffering should be considered a valuable asset which elevates the soul toward the most important human quality: compassion.