by Joanie Butman
I read an interesting article last Sunday in The New York Times entitled The Value of Suffering. A timely piece given the recent anniversary of 9/11. The author, Pico Iyer, speaks of an elderly man he met in Japan who told him that “suffering is a privilege and that when he was a boy, it was believed you should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing.” My response to that statement is, “But don’t we? All suffering exacts a price, and it usually costs us dearly. Pain is its currency.” If you’re alive, chances are you’ve experienced suffering. Some suffering is public, but often much of our suffering occurs in the darkness of our soul hidden from sight. Sometimes that type of suffering is the most painful because it is so isolating. Suffering knows no boundaries and spares no one. There are varying degrees for sure, but pain is a fact of life.
Even with that said, I understand and agree with the assessment of the value of suffering. It promotes growth that for whatever reason wouldn’t otherwise happen. It brings us to a new level of understanding, a new depth. It offers a clarity seldom achieved without it. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend sharing that point of view with anyone in the throws of suffering. Acknowledging their pain and walking beside them through it is the best we can do in that situation. Suffering’s worth only becomes evident in hindsight and often from a healthy distance.
All suffering involves loss. Loss of a
The list is endless. When you are forced to face that loss, you are forced to face how tenuous this world is and everything in it. Whatever it is you hold dear could vanish in the blink of an eye. How could that realization not change you? Intellectually, we all know that truth; but we also tend to live like it will never happen to us.
Iyer cites a Nietzsche quote: “To live is to suffer; to survive is to make sense of the suffering.” In the cancer world I hear people describe themselves as ‘survivors’ all the time, but there are different kinds of survivors. The medical profession has made huge advances and can cure or control more and more cancers every year. However, continuing to remain alive beyond a cancer diagnosis doesn’t define a ‘survivor’ in my book. Learning to view the disease as a blessing rather than a curse is to survive in the truest sense regardless of how long you live – to come through it broken in some ways but stronger and wiser for having made the journey. For me suffering offers a new appreciation for what you do have. The people who choose to turn ‘why’ into ‘what’ and ‘how’ are the true survivors, whether they live months or years. What can I learn from this? How can I use it to help and encourage others? And this is true whether you are facing cancer or any other form of suffering.
I meet these kinds of survivors every time I visit my parents at The Farm, and this week was no exception. When I mention going to The Farm, people envision a bucolic setting with my dad atop a tractor and my mother picking berries to make jam. In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. First off, no one in their right mind would ever let my father behind the wheel of a tractor. The Farm is what my parents call their assisted living residence, and I imagine many ‘inmates’ (as my parents refer to themselves) might feel as if they’ve been put out to pasture. In some cases, this might very well be true, but certainly not my parents nor the cast of characters I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
Whenever I visit, I meet another ‘inmate’ and am always delighted by their stories and their fascinating life experiences. I love hearing about the goings on at The Farm – new romances, book clubs, a new bible study, outings and activities. There are some like my parents who feel they moved into assisted living too soon, but at 87 I don’t know how you could be too soon for anything.
Back to my original topic. These people know suffering. Most of them live it every day as their bodies deteriorate and for some, their minds as well. This visit I had the privilege of having breakfast with two relatively new recruits. During the course of our meal we discussed religion, the reliability of the Bible, politics, Syria, and the disposal of weapons in the U.S. – all before 9 am! Their bodies may be failing, but there is nothing feeble about the minds of these two. I had a hard time keeping up. I left with some reading homework to do and look forward to discussing the recommended book with them upon my return.
The residents at The Farm come from all walks of life, but suffering is a great equalizer. In the world of suffering, diversity reigns. It doesn’t discriminate. We are bound together more by our suffering than any other thing. Suffering shatters our defenses. It changes our perspective and priorities by turning our world on its axis. It snaps us to attention. If you choose to go through suffering unchanged, you are sleepwalking through life. If you choose to fight it, you will lose. That’s when bitterness takes root and, like any weed, proceeds to spread more quickly than any disease affecting all aspects of your life and splattering over everyone in your vicinity. That phenomenon isn’t unique to The Farm, but more obvious because of its small size and close quarters. It is difficult to avoid the victims of bitterness. If you find people evading you, it is a sure sign that you might be so afflicted.
The article I mention concentrates on a Buddhist approach to suffering. As a Christian, I can appreciate their attitude toward suffering as it was the main purpose of Christ’s life and the foundation of our religion. In fact, Christ warns us, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Personally, I think the biggest difference between people with spiritual faith of any kind and those without is how they choose to face suffering. I love the way Iyer closes his essay and offer you his final observation to contemplate this week: “The only thing worse than assuming you can get the better of suffering is imagining you could do nothing in its wake.”
One of the recruits I mentioned shared an essay she had just finished in her Writer’s Group for The Farm’s newspaper. It is a precious, unexpected gift that speaks to this topic so beautifully I asked permission to present it to you, which she graciously offered. Enjoy!
How do you choose to respond to suffering?