It seems that suffering has been a theme of late. My community has been reflecting on endurance and perseverance for the last month, the recent developments with Black Monday and its aftermath, events such as the Vegas shooting in the US, a seeming rise in articles such as the one posted here. I’ve even been reading A Grief Observed. All of this has caused me to take a deeper look at my attitude towards suffering in the world as well as what my own personal experiences have taught me.
If I am very honest with myself, I can’t say that I’ve always had a heart for those who suffer. The media is so saturated with bombings, attacks, and catastrophes that we’ve become accustomed to them, developing a sense of healthy indifference to it all. We must do, because if we allowed all of this carnage to really affect us we’d spend our days and nights weeping. Realistically, we care in a very detached cognitive kind of way, but it’s always something happening to them, to some other. We talk about it and order the Asian style salad in the same breath. We read the headline but skip to the article about the latest mobile phone review. Suffering on a grand scale, as this great obscene weight, doesn’t really affect us. We block it out. We keep calm and carry on. Until one day, it does.
I cannot compare my personal experiences with loss and suffering with anyone else’s. Two people going through the exact same situation will perceive and cope with it differently, let alone equating entirely different events and circumstances. What we can safely say is this: if you are alive, you will suffer and it will change you. Both these facts are inevitable. We can argue about the why’s and the how’s until the cows come home, rarely achieving any sort of answers or consolation (not to mean talking about our pain is not important or cathartic). At the end of the day we must all forge some kind of attitude towards our inevitable struggles and losses. Nothing can prepare us for them. Nothing we do can pre-empt them. We are thrown into the storm and must learn to swim or sink. And here is where we have a choice.
Often times suffering blankets us in such a way that we cope by becoming angry and bitter, or numb and indifferent. We bury the hurt with other emotions, or choose to opt out of emotion altogether. Sinking beneath suffering in this way is a very real threat to our sense of self and to our ability to move on. It can isolate us from the rest of humanity, leaving us alone and afraid. To go through these sentiments is a natural part of grieving, but to linger on in them perpetually leads to decay. However, there is another way.
The experiences we endure will often seem senseless, our hardship meaningless, our struggle futile. But the truth is that it’s only once I experienced such brokenness that I could look at the suffering of those around me and really start to empathise. The personal struggles of people I know and the happenings in the wider world suddenly became a lot more real to me. Not the specifics, not the how’s and the what’s and the why’s, but that sense of meaninglessness, of futility, of vulnerability. My own weakness opened me up to the weakness of others. Their pain resounded with my own. And in that moment I could connect with them in a way I would never have done before. More so, it has taught me about what is important in life, what really matters, and just how resilient we can be. It revealed to me the kindness and compassion of others. And once I allowed it to, once I came to terms with this imperfect existence we experience, once I could look at it in the face and allow it to wash over me, I was able to grow a little bit more.
The truth is we spend most of our time trying to avoid pain and suffering, moulding our lives in such a way as to be as comfortable and as happy as possible. And to a great degree many of us succeed. But inevitably it will always catch up with us, and I thank God for it. It is one of the few things that really brings us together. It challenges us. It changes us. It makes us human.