"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Don’t waste the pain: How to use suffering

By on February 26, 2019 in Columnist with 1 Comment
June Darling

By June Darling

Some years back, I was kayaking with a friend when she posed an unusual question: “What would you say or ask for if you came face to face with God?”

My response popped out almost immediately. It went something like this: “God, I sure hope there is a good reason for all this suffering.”

We just kept paddling. 

My friend couldn’t have known how earth-shatteringly insightful that moment was for me. I hadn’t realized on a conscious level how deeply I was suffering — not so much from anything personally amiss, but just generally grieving about the human condition. Death, aging, illness.

As I’ve gotten older, I have less interest in the “why” of suffering. I’ve become more interested in how we deal with suffering. 

It’s time for me, and possibly for us, to review how we can deal with suffering. 

Notice when I am suffering, name it. Maybe you, like me, are sometimes surprised to notice and realize your own suffering. Perhaps it’s our busy lives. We may push our pain away because it seems too fearful or silly to consider. 

Researchers, however, tell us that we will become more emotionally stable and strong by noticing and naming our feelings without judging them. 

Accept my suffering, be self-compassionate without pitying myself. Suffering is unpleasant, even anguishing. 

We can accept that and be kind to ourselves when we suffer AND realize that everyone on the planet is sometimes suffering. It IS part of the human condition. We all feel pain sometimes. 

There’s a great little folktale about people getting fed up with their various pain and problems. Each complained about this and that. They decided to bag up their pain for an exchange. As they opened and examined each other’s pain and problems, they bundled them back up and decided just to keep the ones they originally had. 

Don’t waste the suffering. This was one of my mother’s axioms. She felt that suffering could offer a gift, meaning, or growth of some sort. Some researchers talk about post-traumatic growth. 

We can use our suffering in ways that help us become better people — emotionally, socially, (and perhaps spiritually) stronger. 

Recently, I was talking with a friend who was discussing some of her serious health issues. 

She leaned closer to me, “I have been so physically robust most of my life. I looked down on others who had various ailments. This health downturn has made me much more compassionate.” 

No surprise that her vulnerability and her receptiveness to others’ suffering has attracted more friends and deepened her relationships. Another friend shared that her suffering brought her closer to God.

Don’t let my suffering keep me from noticing the good stuff in my life. Some prisoners even in concentration camps were able to notice the kindnesses of others, a little flower pushing its way up in barren land, the tweet of a bird that gave them a little respite from their horror. 

A poster words the concept a little differently: “There is ALWAYS, always, always something to be grateful for.” 

If we are suffering, our attention can get hijacked so that we are hyper focused on our pain. It’s challenging to see, smell, touch, or taste anything good. If we let our suffering crowd out the good stuff in our lives, we make our suffering worse.

Late in life, my mother-in-law, Ruth, fell and broke several ribs. Ruth had lost most of her short-term memory. She forgot that she had broken her ribs; she didn’t think about it. She was able to enjoy the sunshine, the breeze, the smell of coffee, until she laughed. Then she would give a grimace or a squeal. Three seconds later she was back to enjoying life. 

Watching Ruth shift so quickly back and forth between pain and joy, gave me an epiphany. 

If we learn to occasionally turn our focus outwards, away from the suffering — toward beauty, love, gratitude, we experience the bliss of the good life even in the center of a storm of suffering. We become more whole.

March is a time often used by people, particularly Christians, to reflect more deeply on the human condition. 

You may want to set aside some time to research or consider the causes of suffering, or you may want to focus on what you can do to alleviate others’ and your own suffering. 

You may want to experiment with noticing, accepting and not wasting your pain. You may find that you can, indeed, move your attention around and experience the fullness of life even during hard times. 

How might you thoughtfully consider the human condition, find helpful ways of dealing with suffering, and move up to The Good Life?

June Darling, Ph.D. can be contacted at drjunedarling1@gmail.com; website: www.summitgroupresources.com. Her bio and many of her books can be found at amazon.com/author/junedarling.

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  1. Susan says:

    “Don’t waste the suffering””– I love that! It feels like using fresh bones to cook fortifying broth (in addition to consuming the more readily filling and enjoyable meat). And sometimes when we can accept and attend our pain, that gives it a chance to release, and not keep cycling around.

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