This page presents several reflections on positively dealing with suffering. A related article can be found here as well as in the entire section on the origin of evil. Another somewhat related article on growing and learning lessons from suffering — in this case ill health and hospitalization — is found on my husband’s website here.
Our world tries at all costs to keep sadness and gladness separate. Pain and sorrow, including death, illness and human brokenness, tend to be hidden, being perceived as obstructions to the goal of happiness for which we all strive. In contrast, Jesus showed both in his teachings and his life that true joy is often hidden in sorrow, and that the dance of life finds its beginning in grief. He revealed a new way of living – a way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born out of the pain.
It will always remain hard for us to embrace our suffering, trusting that it will lead to new life. One way to befriend pain and sorrow is to take it out of its isolation and share it with someone who can receive it. This is not easy, as we seldom confide in others about our feelings and needs. We don’t want to bother them, thinking they have enough of their own problems. Yet the truth is that we honour our friends by entrusting our struggles to them. Of course, not everyone can receive our hidden pains, but if we desire to grow in spiritual maturity, God will send us the friends we need. The various twelve-step programmes for addicts confirm that indeed, sharing our pain is the beginning of healing. As we start experiencing a new “fellowship in weakness”, and discover that we are no longer alone in our struggle, joy can erupt right in the midst of the sorrow.
Much of our isolation is self-chosen. We like to be in control and make our own decisions. While self-reliance is attractive in giving us certain satisfaction, its underside can be loneliness and fear of not making it in life. Our individualism requires that we erect numerous walls between ourselves and others. To become open and vulnerable to others, make community life the focus, and let prayer be the breath of our life, we need to tear down those walls. This is a lifelong and arduous spiritual battle because while tearing down walls with one hand, we build new ones with the other.
The real desire of our heart is communion, or “union with.” Our heart remains restless until we have found full communion. We look for it in friendship, marriage, community, and elsewhere. This God-given desire causes both immense pain and immense joy. Jesus proclaimed that this desire will ultimately be fulfilled by the One who gave it. It is important to follow the desire for communion rather than distrusting it. A truly spiritual life leads to the fulfilment of this deep desire – we won’t rest until we find rest in the embrace of the One who is the Father and Mother of all desires.
Most of our human suffering, ironically, comes from relationships with those who love us. Those closest to us tend to be those who wound us. Everyone loves imperfectly – those who love us and care for us may also use us or be envious of us. Those who give us much often expect much in return. Often our childhood experiences leave us wounded and we may then feel paralyzed by fears, anxieties, and dark urges we don’t understand. It is important to first come to the understanding of our wounds, and then find the freedom to step over our wounds and the courage to forgive those who wounded us. The danger if we do not do this is getting stuck in anger and resentment, always complaining that life isn’t fair. Jesus encourages us to trust that we won’t fall into an abyss of nothingness but into the safe embrace of a God whose love will heal all wounds.
As the media bring us pictures of all kinds of terrible suffering around the world, we often feel powerless to do anything about it. It is crucial, however, not to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by feelings of impotence and guilt. It is more important than ever to be faithful to our vocation to do well the few things we are called to do and hold onto the joy and peace they bring. We must resist the temptation to let the forces of darkness pull us into despair and make us one more of their many victims. Rather, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and trust that we’ll know how to live out our mission to be a sign of hope in this world.
The Dalai Lama sets an excellent example for all of compassion and freedom from hatred or bitterness towards those who ravaged his land and murdered his people. What enables him to do that is that in his meditation, he allows all the suffering of his countrymen and their oppressors to enter into the depth of his heart and there to be transformed into compassion. Gathering the suffering of the people of the world in the centre of our being and letting it become there the raw material for our compassionate love is also the way of Jesus. That indeed is the way for us to follow.
The above series of reflections on dealing with suffering is based on Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now, Living in the Spirit (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1994), 25-34.
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