“Wisdom is knowledge gained through suffering” (Elaine Heath)

“Wisdom is knowledge gained through suffering” (Elaine Heath) May 5, 2015
"Thorn in my side," Andy B, Flickr C.C.
“Thorn in my side,” Andy B, Flickr C.C.

I’ve been reading Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins’ book Missional. Monastic. Mainline. for a New Orleans clergy discussion group we’ve pulled together this May. Today I came across a quote that I wanted to ponder. Heath writes, “There are many definitions of wisdom but one of the best understandings I have received is that wisdom is knowledge gained through suffering… The wisest people I’ve ever known are those who have suffered the most and whose ministry is with those who suffer” (19).

Something about this concept of wisdom is very beautiful and appealing to me. And yet it feels presumptuous of me to endorse it. Despite the fact that I have always thought of myself as an outsider, I am completely a person of privilege according to all the official axes of identity politics. So when I make suffering noble by viewing it as the source of wisdom, does that mean I’m romanticizing it in some kind of disgusting rich white liberal way? How many millions of people suffer every day without any meaningful knowledge gained as a result?

And yet to take a completely different angle, knowledge gained without any suffering seems perverse. It’s the pure, cold rationality of Western modernity that tells us it’s somehow a virtue to know without caring, that dispassion and indifference are signs of a mature objectivity. To lack suffering is to lack personal investment. Compassion means literally “suffering with.” I don’t really take people seriously who seem like they’ve managed to avoid suffering in life. They just don’t have credibility with me. I trust people who have suffered, especially those who have suffered with me.

It seems like an essential part of wisdom is the absence of self-satisfaction. A smarmy know-it-all may have all the technical answers, but he’s a complete fool (and smarmy know-it-alls are almost always men). Somehow self-acceptance is a very different thing than self-satisfaction. When people have battled depression and insecurity and come out on the other side with a healthy love for themselves, they have a different-looking smile than people who have always won at everything. I trust the people with scars more than the people with perfectly straight, white teeth.

Of course, I’m completely biased by my own journey. When I was in the thick of clinical depression in 2003, I discovered a scripture that changed my life. 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 says, “He has chosen the weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise, and the lowly things, the despised ones and those who are not, to bring to nothing the things that are.” I recall “hearing” a voice in my head tell me: “Your brokenness is your chosenness.” The way that I fought my way out of depression was to convince myself that it made me wise and empathetic in a way that un-mentally-ill people could never be. My ministry is a product of believing that my wounds have called me to be a healer.

Of course there are many people in the world who have suffered a lot more than I ever have. I will never understand what it’s like to get evicted or to go hungry because I’m actually out of money. Or to get patronized and silenced and mistrusted for being a woman. Or to be humiliated and physically abused by a police officer because I’m black. Or to be bullied because I’m gay. Or to be born into a body whose anatomy and gender were not the same. It’s not right that any of this suffering occurs. It is not redeemed by the wisdom it engenders. And yet I definitely believe that I will learn the most by sitting at the feet of those whose suffering has made them wise.

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  • kent

    maybe wisdom has to do more with love than knowledge.

  • Gregory Nelson

    Your intuition once again is flawless. Richard Rohr calls it the Authority of Those Who Have Suffered, and goes on to broaden the definition of suffering to “Whenever you are not in control.” Ain’t it the truth!
    We hate not being in control, To not be in control, and know it and accept it is to accept suffering that leads to wisdom. Was Christ’s suffering necessary? Absolutely. He knew he would suffer. He didn’t want to suffer. He took the suffering. Roman Guards and High Priests took control of his life. He negated death itself as a consequence, the ultimate wisdom.
    Many 12-steppers refer to their suffering under the control of an addiction as their wound/gift because they realize that without the suffering they would not have gained the wisdom that lead to their relationships with the higher power.
    Rohr says there are only two ways to access the divine, one is by suffering a great trauma and almost failing to recover, only to find God waiting for you at the darkest of times, and the other is to pray constantly and do good works and live a sinless life leading to the revelation of the divine. Unfortunately, he goes on to say, we humans seem only able to follow route 1.
    And you can’t bring it on yourself. You can’t choose it. If you choose suffering you are just pleasing yourself. When you suffer for others that is glorious. That will bring you grace, but not wisdom. Wisdom comes from passing through hell, and various versions of that. I love the Greek Orthodox view of Christ, leaving the tomb, and passing through Hell on the way to Galilee.
    Rohr tells the tale of someone who asked the Dali Llama how to find wisdom and his reply was quite beautiful. He said, “Oh, by all means avoid it, if you can.” And that’s how it is with suffering. If you seek it you will not find what you are looking for. So don’t go looking for it because it will find you, and never the way you want it to. I am not eager for it to find me. And yet I know it will, and I do not want it, and yet I will accept it because having suffered greatly before, I know that God is with me.

    • Carlton Kelley

      Mother Julian of Norwich asked to be given a sickness that would lead her to the brink of death. She was given that, and in her suffering and reflection on it, encountered a breath taking love of God that had no wrath.

      • Gregory Nelson

        There are lots of stories like that. I remember as a boy being told that St. Dominic would sleep on rocks. I thought that was freakish then, And yet, when I was about 17 I would say the rosary in my room before I went to bead with both arms outstreached until they ached and ached, thinking that by suffering in this way I would win God’s favor. This sort of thinking led me to a crash of faith and a turning away for many years from the false god I created, a god who would be pleased to see me inflict wounds on myself. You have to destroy all the false gods you make before the real God can be seen. How simple it would be if we could just go to the Suffering Bank and deposit a whack in the head with a lead pipe for 6 months of blessings! What kind of God is that? I think we must try to avoid suffering, not ask for it. But when it comes, when it inevitably comes, we must take it and walk with it and beware of the temptation to pass it on to someone else. I still do that when I lose my temper. But at least now I see the temptation and I am quicker to alter course and quicker to make amends for my actions. God says to us, “Here is the life I give you, which is the greatest blessing in the universe without a doubt. For with this life, I give you the right to be forgiven when you miss the mark. Not even my angels have that privilege. My love for you will not abate. And that I also give you to lead you to existence with me. As for suffering, watch what I do as you!”

    • Nice thoughts. Thank you!

  • Carlton Kelley

    Another comment, if I may. We members of the GLBT community have been more than bullied – far, far more. I know you know this, but it needs to be said. Thank you.

    • And that’s probably why I first heard the true gospel from a mostly LGBT church in Toledo, Ohio in 2002. People who have been ostracized get it in a way that others don’t.

  • charlesburchfield

    I think you share something of a pattern that comes to anyone who has exp trauma, loss, grief and come out the other side w a feeling of gratitude. That you are willing now to roll up your sleaves to do the work of validating survivors is the miracle and legacy of what you have suffered I think!

  • Carlton Kelley

    Thank you for your response. I should have also said that all the people in the groups you mention have been subject to the worst of the world’s brutality.