Suffering; the Great Leveler

My archives are not all moved over yet, so I can’t find most of the posts, but we do sometimes muse about suffering here.

Often the topic comes up because we are sharing sad news that reminds us once again that no one gets through life without experiencing what it is to suffer.

We have been trained in the secular world to disregard life as something holy and to understand that our human potential is inextricably tied to our personal freedoms and our domination over those uncontrollable matters of life: death, pain, and joy. This is a great deception. The truth is, just as human expansion upon the earth depended upon someone being willing to explore those uncharted waters marked, “Here be monsters,” our human potential can only grow when it is open to exploring the Unknowable. The vehicle for that exploration is faith. If the monsters of life are pain and suffering, fear and doubt, moving through them is what leads to discovery, growth, and — yes — holiness. God does not give us more than we can endure, but we cannot ascertain on our own precisely how much strength we have.

Suffering, in fact is the great leveler – the thing that brings us to a common ground of pleading and unavoidable transition. It might even be the thing that binds us, if we can be bothered looking around at other people’s lives rather than obsessing on our own.

Suffering does not bypass the rich or skip over the poor; it is not confined only to agnostics, or doled out in extra measure to saints, and because this is true inevitability, suffering may be one of the “most fair” parts of our lives. When we cannot see that, we allow suffering to make us bitter and resentful as we think, “it’s not fair. That person gets to walk, but my son is in a wheelchair. That person lived to be 90 while my brother died so young. That couple had 50 years together, and we so pitifully few. That woman got to keep her children and see them grow into middle age…”

John F. Kennedy once said, “whoever said life was ‘fair?’” but in one sense it really is. We all get a turn in the crucible. And what we do with our time there — how open we are to being shaped and molded in that white hot heat — has a lot to do with whether our lives can continue to sustain beauty, or love, or hope or joy.

A “life fully lived” is not about having many things, or knowing many people. It is about how we deal with what is before us, and who is around us. If suffering will come to us all, then we either admit it into the fullness of our lives, and find joy, or we push it away, and remain incomplete.

Chelsea Zimmerman was told, when she was 17 that she would never walk again. Over at Patheos she has this to say about suffering:

Why does hatred of suffering lead to decreased respect for human life? Because refusing to suffer is refusing the totality of living. It is a rejection of life itself. [...] I’m not going to lie. The past eleven years have not been easy. But that doesn’t mean they have been “too hard” to take, or that joy has eluded me. I’m still a human being, I’m still alive, and my life still has meaning and infinite value despite my challenges and limitations. What’s more, experiencing adversity has provided me with an elite (and extensive) education in the practical living-out of those valuable virtues: humility, patience, courage, and perseverance. . . We think that by pushing all that is imperfect and difficult out of our sights, we are showing the tenderness of our hearts, when all we are really betraying in our fear, and how it owns us.

But we needn’t be owned.

Read it all;
suffering brings wisdom

Meanwhile, Rick at Brutally Honest has a video of a young seminarian — a former naval officer who had deployed twice to the Persian Gulf — who is dying of brain cancer. Rick writes:

We live in an entertainment age where we are easily bored or distracted unless nearly all of our senses are engaged. It’s a sad fact.

[This talk by the seminarian]. I can’t call it riveting [by today's standards]. What I can call it is enlightening. I can call it wisdom. I can call it a dose of reality that we need to hear. I can call it that which we should all listen to because the fact is that if you live long enough (and for this young man, not so long enough), you’re going to suffer.

Set aside 30 quiet minutes and listen to what he has to say. It may just prepare you for something you’ll appreciate later in life. It may give meaning to that which you’re experiencing now.

No, it’s not riveting. It’s just necessary.

Go watch the video; suffering gives us courage and resilience, and hope.

We mustn’t be afraid to suffer. The truth is, even if we are not Christian, even if we have no faith at all, in contemplating the crucifix, we contemplate great suffering, and One who knows precisely what it’s all about.

Pain, Penance & Prayer
The Searing Season
What we give away, what we keep

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Manny

    This was one of your great blog posts Anchoress. It was wonderful reading and something with which I totally agree. My father went through tremendous suffering in the last two plus years of his life, but through his suffering I believe he came to accept God’s will and I came much closer to God and my faith. Without suffering we both would have missed out.

    This paragraph of yours was so good, it needs highlighting:

    “A “life fully lived” is not about having many things, or knowing many people. It is about how we deal with what is before us, and who is around us. If suffering will come to us all, then we either admit it into the fullness of our lives, and find joy, or we push it away, and remain incomplete.”

  • Beatrix

    “God does not give us more than we can endure”

    I’m sorry, I’ve heard that, but what does it mean? Noone’s ever gone crazy from suffering? Noone’s ever decided, on balance, that it would have been much better if they’d never been born? I mean, what would happen if you were given more than you could endure? Would your head explode?

    I’m not trying to be morbid or overly negative, it’s just that I’ve heard that cliche so many times and it rings false to me.

    [Rings true to me. As I wrote, we don't know how much we can manage to survive until we actually engage. When we do, sometimes we find that the thing we were suffering over became a gift. -admin]

  • Jan

    Beatrix, that expression simply means if we give our burdens to God, He will help us carry them. When you get to a point where you think you may go crazy from suffering, when you decide that it would have been better never to have been born, that’s the time to turn to God.

    That doesn’t mean your earthly trials will magically disappear – it just means that believers understand they are not going it alone and this is a great comfort for us.

  • Mr. C.M. Burns

    Suffering, in fact is the great leveler

    I thought that the great leveler was sitting. “From the mightiest pharaoh to the lowliest peasant, who doesn’t enjoy a good sit?”

  • Joseph Marshall

    One thing I can say about my Buddhist teachers, is that they are the death experts and they are the suffering experts. They draw a very clear distinction between pain, both mental and physical, which is inherent in our lives even if it is only latent at the moment, and suffering, which is the way we respond to our pain. Suffering, in fact, is a kind of running editorial commentary on the immovable experience of our own pain.

    One of the most personally liberating things I know is to understand that we can control and change our response to pain.

    “Even if we are not Christian…” Everyone speaks of faith, and I am often asked what Buddhists have faith in. Christians routinely find it puzzling that I have faith in “karma, cause, and effect” as well as multiple past and future lives, which is the immediate inference to be drawn from the faith in karma, cause, and effect.

    With such faith both pain and suffering become completely intelligible, there is no “when bad things happen to good people” problem, and there is no need to ask why someone else has given us our suffering. They didn’t.

    Of course, this doesn’t change the pain at all, but it does significantly reduce the suffering.

    There are three types of pain: pain in the past, in the present, and ahead in the future. From the Buddhist vantage point, pain in the present is the least important. Our pain is the result of countless bad [literally "unskillful"] actions in our past lives. There are plenty of these no matter how “good” a person we currently are. These ripen for us in the form of present pain and the karmic power involved is so strong that there is relatively little we can do about it.

    Pain in the past is completely over and done with, even if we still make ourselves suffer by continuing the editorial commentary on it. It’s karma, cause, and effect has no more power over us because it is fully ripened, but pain in the future is a far different matter.

    We are taught, “do no evil and learn to control your mind”. To the degree you can do this you are ceasing to create future suffering for yourself. And we are taught that karma, cause, and effect is largely serial, with most of our pain deriving from out actions several lives back. So something can be done about the karmic consequences we have left because they are not immediately ready to ripen.

    What we can do is purify them through confession, sincere repentance of them, and resolve not to repeat them. Since this is the Catholic portal, I’m sure most here understand about the confession part of it.

    But, though the karma is serial, the confession doesn’t have to be specific and serial. Regular and repeated confession purifies any and all karma without our having to keep an inventory of actions we can no longer remember. I cannot prove this to be so, but the changes that have occurred in my life since becoming Buddhist strongly suggest that it is.

    Being “in the crucible” may be purifying, but I, at least, am very glad that there is an alternative. This certainly is a very strong incentive for me to control my mind.

    Even if I’m in pain at the moment. There are certain techniques of controlling the mind that I have been taught which require no Buddhist faith whatever, but which can unequivocally reduce the suffering consequent on any pain.

    You can simply imagine that your pain draws away the pain and suffering from all people everywhere and binds it immovably to your own present pain, leaving them free from it. Then you can imagine that all your present and future happiness goes to all people everywhere and makes them immeasurably happy.

    Now, since this is all imaginary, there is no reason to be afraid of doing it. It makes your pain no greater and your future happiness no less than they were before. But it slices right through the ongoing editorial commentary on your pain which is purely a product of your uncontrolled mind. And your suffering diminishes.

    This I have proved to my own satisfaction to be true, and anyone else can do so who is willing to make the effort to tame and train the mind this way.

  • Barbaragold7

    I know of suffering, it has come to me in many forms, the most unspeakable was watching my youngest beloved son struck and killed by a drunk driver. Walking through that black valley was a long, hard process. Early on there were times when I did not want to continue to live, the pain was so great and I just wanted to be with my son. There are a few years where my memory does not recall, probably a way the mind protects oneself from such horror. The Lord came to me in a vivid dream and showed me to call His name three times and He said to ask Him to cover me with His blood.
    When the pain and despair would become too great, and I could no longer breathe from weeping so intensely, I would call upon Him and an inexplicable peace would decend.
    Twelve years later I have moved back into life for some time now.
    I will never stop that longing for my son, but I also look forward to seeing him in heaven.
    Strange as it may sound, there are gifts hidden in suffering if one grabs hold of them.
    First you NEVER take a relationship for granted ever again . The brevity of life is forever imprinted.
    My husband and I never part from any loved one without telling them of our love for them.
    You lose patience for shallowness and material things
    My faith has grown by leaps and bounds because I have learned that Jesus is THE ONLY one that can provide true peace and comfort in hard times , all our little creature comforts mean nothing at such a time.
    I take a little offense (of which my Lord compells me to let go of)at the reincarnation notion that somewhere, somehow I did something to make that tragedy for my son happen. There was a time long ago I looked into reincarnation as well.
    I believe that suffering is part of living on this fallen earth. This is not our home. The Bible says it” is appointed to man to die but once.” My faith tells me there is a heaven the other side of this earth espesially for those who cleave to Him no matter what.

  • Klaire

    I just (finally), came out of what I believe was a “3 year trial in the desert”, the hardest 3 years of my life, ever. I truly believe I was tried as far as I humanly and sacramentally, could go. Two days before Christmas, my life had an amazing turn of events, but in point of fact, the events that unfolded didn’t surprise me, as I continued to simply trust, regardless of how bleak things appeared. Without faith, there is simply no way I would have not jumped off a bridge. I always knew God was with me every step of the way.

    What really got me through the last and hardest year (in additioin to the Eucharist of course), was the last chapter of the book by Father Charles Armingon, sermons of a 19th century French priest (a favorite of the Little Flower). While I’ve long been a student per se of redemptive suffering, nothing brought more clairty to me on the great mystery of suffering than the last chapter (sermon/lecture), of this book.

    I would meditate on it often. The part that hit me the deepest
    was this (paraphrased): Being that will be glorified in Christ, it only makes sense that in order to be glorified with him, we must also “suffer in Him.”

    Somehow the author managed to explain that even though Jesus suffered much, the end of the world cannot be complete until we as humans have suffered EVERYTHING possible for Christ, IN Christ. For example, (my words here), Christ never lost a child to a drunk driver, or was raped, or gased, or beheaded, etc. As horrible as all of the suffering we find unimaginable, what I finally “got” is how necessary it is, for it all to be complete. Yes, Christ dying for us was certainly enough for redemption, but His suffering opened the door to allow US to suffer IN HIM. Maybe it was grace, but it all hit me in a such a deep way, that regardless of how hard I would be suffering that day, it would bring me great peace and make my own suffering so “nothing and so worth it.” I think even more so, I realized that if I could suffer just one thing
    no one else has ever suffered, it would bring us all closer to the great glorification

    That said, none of us can ever suffer more than Jesus did for us, only in different ways, and always united with the power of the cross.

  • Manny

    Peace be with you Barbara. This was very touching. I pray you will one day be reunited.

  • Manny

    As I said to Barbara, may God bring you peace.