This topic scares me.
As the saying goes, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.” There’s a litany of things that can go wrong. The further we go in life’s journey, the more we personally experience these misfortunes or witness them in others: bankruptcy, divorce, infidelity, chemical dependency, chronic pain, life-threatening illnesses, or death of a loved one (especially a child). These are easily recognized and frequently heartwrenching.
Others, though, have lived through systemic suffering, daily fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Immersed in the hostilities of religious, political, or ethnic persecution, entire communities live on the edge of despair.
I feel like such a fraud when I think about all of the precious souls whom have survived these horrors—or met their deaths with nobility. In the throes of such suffering, could I respond with kindness, hope, and the convictions of my faith?
I don’t know.
Oddly enough, while taking a break from writing this, I hurt myself while closing my broken garage door. I pinched my right middle finger between two of the panels of my double-car-sized garage door…and it hurt. A lot.
My wife, mother-in-law, and father-in-law all witnessed the incident. My wife quickly reminded me to go lay down and implement counter-measures for shock, as everyone knows that my system is hyper-reactive to pain. Within moments I made it to my bed, feet up, without throwing up (which was an accomplishment).
I wasn’t exactly crying like a baby, but I was close. It really hurt. Some tears came, but, more than anything, I was angry. “That was so stupid,” I quietly chided myself in my wife’s hearing. Then there’s the reality that my wife was taking care of me, getting ice, medication, and helping me elevate my feet, etc. I don’t like it when others have to help me because of my mistakes. On top of all of that, this injury hijacked the evening we planned with my in-laws.
Then I remembered this blog.
“Not funny, God.” I got through the rest of the evening with ice, various medications (over-the-counter and scripted), and sincere thanks for my loving wife’s support. I prayed, asking God to accept my pain as some sort of sacrifice for this crazy world.
But, yeah. It kinda was funny. By the next day, my middle finger looked like a deep-purple grape, and I could easily track my heart rate by its throbbing.
After my unplanned field trip into pain, above, I’m still left with the question of whether I would be worthy of greater tests of pain and suffering. What if I experienced a longer duration of pain, or if it were somehow more intense? And, rather than physical suffering, what if it was the suffering of religious or political injustice?
Do you ever wonder about these things?
Remote and recent history give us models we could emulate, though this subject is not something frequently discussed in a History class per se.
From what was described to an evangelist in Uganda, a semi-nomadic tribe, the Koromojong, did horrible things to the Sabine people on the northwestern edge of Mt. Elgon (a.k.a. the place of “Gorillas In The Mist”). The Koromojong raped, pillaged, and burned entire villages, driving the Sabines high up to Mt. Elgon for refuge. The Koromojong reportedly found cases of AK-47s, left behind by the Idi Amin regime. They used their newfound power to steal and destroy the prosperity of the peaceful Sabine people. This occurred about 50 years ago. Many Sabines believed God had forgotten them. Others kept praying that deliverance would come. And it did.
There was an influx of evangelists across Uganda in the early- to mid-2,000’s. Child sponsorship programs were birthed, and many hearts were transformed from bitterness to compassion. Stories were told of Sabine tribal members pooling their limited resources to build a well for their enemies, the Koromojong. Many also gave up their only pairs of shoes to the Koromojong, as they did not have the semi-nomadic life of their African brothers. Forgiveness and friendship replaced the poison of resentment.
Another horrible set of circumstances comes to mind. I’ve recently begun re-reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.” Two-thirds of his book recounts his first-hand experiences of the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. Most of us think of gas chambers at their mention. But imagine living minute-by-minute with hunger, fantasizing about the favorite dishes you may never taste again. Or imagine the combined cruelty of a German winter and near-complete nakedness—with thread-bare clothing and virtually no body fat. Then there were the random beatings from a guard’s slightest irritation or whim. This all occurred while forced to work in these conditions. At the end of the day, prisoners might have the time and modicum of energy to pick lice from one another’s bodies.
And I complain about a throbbing finger.
A comparative discussion may often occur in moments like these, as if to say, “someone else always has it worse,” or, “you should be thankful that something worse didn’t happen.” That’s not very helpful, and I think it completely neglects bigger considerations.
Let’s start with compassion, which literally means having a shared emotion in response to another’s pain. Along similar lines, it’s been said that the worse pain is your own. In other words, each person’s pain, however defined, is valid in and of itself. It deserves to be acknowledged and understood through the sufferer’s experience. This is why comparative remarks—from the previous paragraph—land unfavorably at best, but are often harmful and/or marginalizing to the one in pain. Genuine compassion, or empathy, can never be overused. It’s one thing to be in pain; but to be in pain and completely alone, without the compassion of another? That’s Hell.
Aside from compassion, nearly innumerable rivulets come from the headwaters of suffering. Frankl’s book suggests that the degree of suffering requires a correspondingly resolute reason for living, or else you will die. Alternately, one might ask, what’s the point of suffering? Is there always a silver lining to suffering? We similarly hear the saying, “everything happens for a reason.” Is that an empty platitude, or is there something to it? And so on.
This is where I’m quickly met with a limitation, some may say, of my worldview. I mean no disrespect, but wow. I just don’t get how someone can live in a world without some metaphysical beliefs in order, intelligent design, and—ultimately—a belief in God. The alternative, with any serious depth of consideration, quickly devolves to Nihilism. THAT’s depressing.
The rock-bottom reality is that we are creatures of relationship. Rather than self-propagating individuals, we depend on others for our physical, emotional, and spiritual existence. I already entertained some of these dynamics in previous posts about identity and self-esteem.
Our most fundamental relationship involves our relationship with God. In sum, He created us and gave us everything we needed, including the capacity to make decisions that affirm or depart from what He has ordained and provided for us. At some point there was a game-changer, whereby our forebears decided to go their own way instead of abiding by our Creator’s will. In a perfectly ordered world, they committed disorderly conduct; and we’ve been suffering the consequences of that ever since.
But that’s not the whole story. Not by a long shot.
Again, relationships are most important, first with our Creator, then with the created world (especially with one another). If we miss the importance of this, then we degenerate into all sorts of problematic beliefs, and an escalation of destructive choices. Much of what we currently observe in our supposedly “civilized” world exemplifies this: the ever-widening confusion about gender identity; pockets of brazen celebration about abortion; and a bewildering lack of clarity about the nature and purpose of marriage/family. People go from anger to despair, then from despair to apathy. The blaring allure of consumerism exploits our delusions about a life without God. We are rewarded with momentary pleasures, at best. These never satisfy the gnawing hunger in our souls, however, for the relationships we were designed for.
It’s no wonder life is so miserable for so many people.
I would like to suggest a difference between misery and suffering, however. Suffering is a circumstance, while misery (i.e., gloomy, despairing) involves one’s attitude in response to suffering.
Before we dive deeper into this, I realize that some of you are in tremendous pain—whether physical or emotional, short-lived or chronic. I don’t want to minimize or treat this topic flippantly in any way. My only desire here is to consider something beyond suffering and toward hope.
Everyone suffers. Misery, however, occurs when we have no sense of purpose with our suffering. All we can see is the suffering per se. It’s the flip-side of the same coin that seeks immediate pleasure, insofar as misery only seeks immediate relief of pain…at almost any cost.
How do we explore suffering in a more nuanced way, rather that the either/or of misery vs suffering, above? I want to suggest different levels of suffering. My hope is to offer some starting points for reflection and a pursuit of something greater within the human experience of suffering. Maybe someone else has already done this, but a quick Internet search offered no such developmental perspective. (I’m intrigued by Fr. Robert Spitzer’s “4 Levels of Happiness, which has some parallels to what I propose, below. I encourage the reader to explore it.)
It is curious that the most prevalent theoretical remarks and attempts to soothe suffering come from a Buddhist viewpoint. This includes articles from a psychologist in Psychology Today, a publication of the American Psychological Association (APA). The adage, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” at the least, recognizes a need to admit our limits of control and consider metaphysical solutions. Sadly, the APA seems to encourage the use of eastern mysticism in the pursuit of psychological wellness, while it tolerates western mysticism (borne from Christianity)…but only so long as it refrains from asserting its truths and moral absolutes.
Level one in the paradigm that I propose focuses solely upon the relief of pain. Whether psycho-spiritually and/or physically, we experience discomfort and seek to end the pain per se. We physically recoil from an adverse experience, or at least try to numb its effects. We avoid people that bother us, or we try to deny that we were bothered at all. This response to suffering is basic and necessary for the purpose of survival or simply navigating the breadth of life’s daily demands. It has its shortcomings, however.
What happens when there’s no relief of the pain? Maybe you’ve heard others say, or thought to yourself, “it’s not working,” or the rhetorical question, “why even try?!?” (Because nothing is “working” to end the pain.)
Unmitigated pain becomes miserable when we see no way out of it, and it begins to fester.
We know we’re at this level when we’re lashing out at God, oneself, or others; and we also experience suffering in this manner when it feels like we’re on the outside (of life) looking in, as if we don’t belong here in this reality. This is where serious thoughts of suicide—or otherwise wishing to get out of this experience through any means possible—come to mind. Over time, this becomes a quiet, living death; and despair can morph into apathy. We need something more than solely focusing upon relief of pain.
Level two assumes level one, insofar as practical and reasonable relief is sought. Whether the suffering per se ceases or decreases, however, the individual shifts to a purposeful mindset. We might call this the “silver lining” level. This attitude seeks opportunities for good in (presence), through (anticipation), and from (retrospection) the suffering.
The saying, “everything happens for a reason,” may not always be an empty platitude. Another adage comes to the fore, “that which does not kill us only makes us stronger,” and so on. At a minimum, the Apostle Paul’s remarks to the Romans reflect his observation that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God….to be conformed to the image of His Son…” (Romans 8:28-29). We can also discern this in Paul’s statement within what we understand was his second letter to the Corinthians, as he describes another silver lining of suffering:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4; emphasis mine). The silver lining level, however, sometimes meets with limitations. Something more is needed. We may struggle to receive a direct, practical benefit about the suffering.
Level three adds a redemptive mindset to levels one and two. It represents penitential attitudes and actions, borne from true guilt for what one has done; and it’s a choice (not something received and surmised). This attitude seeks amends for the wrongs done toward God, others, and even oneself. We observe this in the middle steps of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a somewhat different vein, a person might construe unrelenting challenges as a general penance for one’s history of poor choices, and an opportunity to face these challenges without presumption or the complaint, “why me?!?” (To which one can respond, “why NOT you?”)
Level four builds upon the three previous, with a next-level emphasis upon redemption. It’s both mystical as well as sacrificial. Rather than an act of personal penance, the sufferer prayerfully seeks the benefit of others.
I’ve only recently recognized this as a legitimate form of suffering within the Christian faith, even though Scripture offers some clues along such lines. The Apostle Paul remarks to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of the body of Christ, which is the Church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24).
Whoah! There’s a lot packed into that statement, and I will not attempt to un-pack it in very great detail. I had always been led to believe, however, that Christ’s afflictions were altogether sufficient within His crucifixion. Clearly, per Paul’s remark, it isn’t over until it’s over. In other words, as Christians, we have more suffering to do. Moreover, per Paul’s example, we should rejoice in our suffering, and seek to accredit our suffering toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes in this world.
We may observe another clue about these dynamics in the book of Revelation (a.k.a. “The Apocalypse”). After the Apostle John hears the souls underneath the altar cry out “with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’…and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (Rev 6:10b, 11b).
From these passages we may each consider and submit our suffering as a sacrificial prayer. These prayers can be realized toward the afflictions yet to be fulfilled before all of Creation is consummated in Christ. Stated differently, the pain from our disorderly world will eventually accrue and be transformed toward the restoration of perfect order—between God, Creation, and humanity.
Though not mutually exclusive, we may also seek more specific benefit for those with whom we have some sort of particular knowledge and relationship. We can “offer it up” within a prayer for others. Somehow, mysteriously, it seems that God is especially moved by the prayers of those who suffer from no fault of their own. Bob Schuchts reflects this within his book, “Real Suffering,” but it wouldn’t take long to find other stories along such lines.
There. That was a lot. Again, in sharing these reflections, I don’t want to minimize suffering in any way. Rather, my desire is to consider something beyond (or through) suffering, toward hope. This is especially needful for those whose suffering seems without end and beyond one’s control.
I don’t pretend to have all of this figured out, and I’ll not belabor this with further caveats. If you can shed more helpful light on this subject, please let us know.
There is hope. You don’t have to be alone.
Frankl, V. (1984; originally published in Austria, in 1946). Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Schuchts, B. (2018). Real Suffering. Charlotte, NC: St. Benedict Press.