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The Value of Suffering

“As a boy, I’d learned that it’s the Latin, and maybe a Greek, word for ‘suffering’ that gives rise to our word ‘passion.’ Etymologically, the opposite of suffering is, therefore, ‘apathy’; the Passion of the Christ, say, is a reminder, even a proof, that suffering is something that a few high souls embrace to try to lessen the pains of others. Passion with the plight of others makes for ‘compassion.‘”

I just read this article at NYT and I need to discuss it. It seems to me the value of suffering is largely in what you do with it afterwards. Those who are suffering horribly (or recently) may feel little of value in the experience. I’m not suffering much currently, nor have I experienced much in the way of real tragedy. I will. And soon. But regardless, several people I know are suffering and live with it every day.

So I’m getting existential this week and wondering how do you find the courage to move on and embrace laughter again after having faced such undeniable tragedy at the core of life?

Many of my favorite authors have tried answering this with their books and even their lives. And I’ve read several who are pretty convincing. But there’s no “solution” is there? So many of my favorite books are all about this “work” of finding the ability to play again after suffering tried to convince them life could not amuse them. Ever. Again.

How could they forget or betray the truth they now knew?

Also: “Wise men in every tradition tell us that suffering brings clarity, illumination; for the Buddha, suffering is the first rule of life, and insofar as some of it arises from our own wrongheadedness — our cherishing of self — we have the cure for it within. Thus in certain cases, suffering may be an effect, as well as a cause, of taking ourselves too seriously.”

This deserves some further thought. So since it seems to be the deeper side of this morning’s Momo on “Pursuing Nothing,” I thought someone might be willing to check out the article and think about what this has for you in your life and your own book project.

Don’t feel obligated to be serious and somber, though it’s pretty much the default setting for this topic. I’m hoping for some discussion about books that are honest and fearless about the struggle for joy and laughter in the midst of pain and suffering…because to me, that’s all that makes sense to be reading and writing about. It’s just too much work otherwise.

How can we play when people are dying? 

Looking forward to exploring this more with you all this week…

7 Responses to “The Value of Suffering”

  1. Thanks for another great thought provoking article Mick. A topic near (too near) to my heart.

    I’ll share the excerpt from the article that struck me the most:

    “the tear I’d witnessed made me think that you could be strong enough to witness suffering, and yet human enough not to pretend to be master of it. Sometimes it’s those things we least understand that deserve our deepest trust. Isn’t that what love and wonder tell us, too?”

    Isn’t it true we want to be a master of it? Not to be flippant, but don’t we long for easy answers for dieting, exercise and other less difficult forms of “suffering” to avoid the discomfort? We’re wired that way–to flee, fight, or freeze in the presence of pain. Why should I pretend to be a master of something that truly is unable to be mastered? I have read no books that have given me definitive answers for how to suffer and heal, but there have been words from people who understand and release compassion–those have given me the freedom and security to discover the deeper meanings and joys of my own pain–my own cross to bear.

    Suffering is equally a solitary experience and one of solidarity, as is joy. I believe deep compassion is birthed in fully embracing one’s own suffering so we are able to sit with someone else in theirs.

    But back to your main question: ” how do you find the courage to move on and embrace laughter again after having faced such undeniable tragedy at the core of life?”

    Not courage for me. Survival instinct, a will to live, a gift of desperation, the too real experience of how close death is, the redemption of sorrow that transforms into joy that no man can fully explain. I have no answers, only my story as the gospel of the miraculous.

    And I believe it is true “Sometimes it’s those things we least understand that deserve our deepest trust.”

    Now I’m going to go watch funny cat videos… :-)

  2. suzee B says:

    concerning personal pain, i think there are bad choices for handling tragedy like suicide, medication in all forms imaginable, denial (which doesn’t work very well at all) or becoming mentally ill as in shutting down, going inside and never coming out again.

    good choices are what’s leftover. and sometimes, like linda said, it’s a survival instinct, a different default if you will, and not a choice period.

    god makes us numb. there is a reason for shock and numb. i think many of us wail and scream and bawl and go to bed or the woods and cry and cry and cry some more. then we wait. we move around on auto pilot waiting. sometimes for years. until a smile or a titter heralds our return. trusting is another choice and that just plain isn’t a manageable choice because it’s effortless to be so angry at god that you feel he is more untrustworthy that a terrorist.

    in terms of the whole wide world out there suffering, when a little of that leaks in, i don’t handle it well. i don’t watch the news, i don’t read newspapers or magazines. i hide. it’s too much. the scale of the suffering is too huge. it’s easier to trust god though. easier than when it’s MY TURN, MY LIFE, MY LOVED ONE, MY WORLD. “””””waaaay out there far away from me is the big world, and, well, it comes ‘easier’ (there’s that word again) to sing a verse of “he’s got the whole world, in his hands…..he’s got the little bitty baby…he’s got you and me brother….sister…”

    what a human crisis we exist in. not if but when it’s our turn. so in the end we come bloodied in every fiber of our being reaching out to god. we remember he is real. we believe again.

    mick, you made me think, why’dcha have to go and that? oh i spect it needs to happen every now and then. just so you know. besides being paranoid, and on edge now, i thank you for forcing me to dig. (i think….)

    suzee B

    • admin says:

      Thinking, paranoid and on edge. Sounds like you need to go back a post and remember to pursue nothing… :)

      I’m with you though. I limit my intake of bad news as well. In our instant-news world, it’s a survival tactic.

      How desperately people need to know their suffering does not negate the existence of joy–and the endless possibility of God to redeem and restore all sin and death have tried to steal. I can’t imagine how anyone gets through the evening news otherwise, let alone their own histories of suffering.

      You make me think too. And I love you right up to the moon.


  3. Rick says:

    Years ago, when the mixture of self-pity, self-loathing, and desperation caused me to try to take my own life, while my head was yet in the noose and the pills were working to make me not care? I was sobbing my guts out – the spirit within me was grieving. It wasn’t for lack of trying that I’m still here – quite the opposite – it is because I paid attention (finally!) to what I’d been hearing all along but had paid only lip service to.

  4. Cami S says:

    The difference between those who know God and those who don’t is that God can give meaning to our suffering. My suffering, both large and small, point me to the fact this world is broken. Suffering resonates in our hearts as wrong because we were created for something more than this broken world has to offer. Apart from God, my suffering can leave me hopeless. Only by taking the ashes suffering produces in my life to God can I hope to see something beautiful come from them.

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