Suffering as Service
I don’t know why, but from the time I was a kid, I have had this idea that there is a certain amount of pain and suffering in the world that gets distributed across humanity. Like suffering was an actual thing with quantity that could be measured in cups and miles. Or maybe tears and hours of agony. Some people are dealt a larger portion of this suffering than others. The way to reduce the amount of suffering in the world is to process what comes to you and let it go. Pain and suffering that doesn’t get dealt with, gets passed on to those around us. It can even be multiplied in this process. The ability to suffer without passing it on to those around us is part of how we can serve the world. A person who can endure a lot of suffering without passing it on is performing a real service to humanity.
Like a lot of highly sensitive people, I have spent my share of time crying over people, circumstances and suffering that I do not know, have not encountered and can do nothing about. (I wrote about how I learned to stop doing this so much here.) Even as a kid when I would find myself crying over people and events that affect me not one whit, I would pray, “please let every tear I cry be one less that those going through it have to cry.” It doesn’t make much sense and I have no reason to think that it works that way, but I hope it does. The burden of grief should be shared, not multiplied after all.
Because of my peculiar ideas about pain and suffering, I have never viewed a life free from pain as being particularly desirable. Not that I ever went looking for suffering, but allowing my life to be shaped by trying to avoid it never seemed like a good option either. If God never gives us more than we can handle and a lot of difficulties and challenges come my way, well, that must be because I can handle more than most people. I certainly never took it as a sign that I should start trying to avoid it. It’s like a friend of mine and I used to say, “maybe God thinks too highly of us.” I had to laugh when I read Glennon Melton at Momastary the other day when she wrote:
No matter what happens to me- secretly I believe it’s because I’m special. Special needs baby- YEP- I’m special! Lyme Disease? Well, sure. I’m special. Book deal? Well – duh- special. More diseases?? Is there no end to my special-ness?
Yup. That’s exactly how I’ve always thought about it too. Again, I don’t know that it actually works that way, but thinking that you’ve been given pain and suffering because you can deal with it (because you’re so special, of course!) works.
Last night, I picked up my copy of Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love and read this passage:
“Your pain, deep as it is, is connected with specific circumstances. You do not suffer in the abstract. You suffer because someone hurts you at a specific time and in a specific place . . . Still, as long as you keep pointing to the specifics, you will miss the full meaning of your pain. You will deceive yourself into believing that if the people, circumstances, and events had been different, your pain would not exist. This might be partly true, but the deeper truth is that the situation which brought about your pain was simply the form in which you came in touch with the human condition of suffering. Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity. Paradoxically, therefore, healing means moving from your pain to the pain. When you keep focusing on the specific circumstances of your pain, you easily become angry, resentful, and even vindictive. You are inclined to do something about the externals of your pain in order to relieve it; this explains why you often seek revenge. But real healing comes from realizing that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realization allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life. That is the way of Jesus who prayed on the cross: “Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus’ suffering, concrete as it was, was the suffering of all humanity. His pain was the pain. Each time you can shift your attention away from the external situation that caused your pain and focus on the pain of humanity in which you participate, your suffering becomes easier to bear.” ~ Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love
I brought the book to my husband and read this out loud to him and asked, “have you ever thought of pain and suffering like that?” He answered, “no – I haven’t. But that’s a really good way to think about it.” Puzzle solved. My husband struggles to forgive and finds the idea of vengence pretty much irrisistable. And I’ve never been able to explain to him why I don’t. But it’s this. The suffering I experience isn’t about the details of what happened and who did what. Those are just the particulars of the package that my own experience of humanity’s suffering come wrapped up in. If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. And if it wasn’t something else, I would be less of a person. And a less useful human being as well.
M. Scot Peck rather famously said that the avoidance of suffering is at the root of all mental illness, which is certainly overstates the case. But I do believe absolutely that our attempts to avoid suffering distort us. A life without suffering must be small and shallow in order to avoid it. We allow the suffering that comes our way to be passed on to those around us when we refuse to face and resolve it. Pain is one of those paradoxes of life; the only way for it to lose its power over us is for us to accept it. To stop fighting and trying to avoid it. It’s the message of the cross. It’s how we eventually become free of it. And hopefully each time we do this – face pain and suffering rather than run from it, multiply it, hold onto it – there’s a little less suffering in the world to go around.