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Suffering: Pain or Possibility?

Suffering is not the favorite choice for spirituality focus.  In fact, many more popular spiritualities forego any discussion of suffering.  If you were to read these spiritualities, you would not even think suffering ever happens.  To many of these superficial (in my estimation) spiritualities are chasing what spiritual-psychiatrist, Gerald May, calls the happiness mentality.  In effect, that spirituality contends that if you are spiritual, you ought to be happy.          

Let it be said, I am happy to be happy.  I don’t know anyone who prefers sadness to being happy.  Happiness is great; often it is fun.  But the happiness mentality always crashes on the rocks of suffering.  And so far as I know, there is always the good chance we all will have our share of suffering.  Even the Buddhist, who sets out on the spiritual pilgrimage to eliminate suffering, begins with suffering as seemingly a given in life.           

I don’t think suffering is a necessity in life.  However, I do think that most of us live long enough to have a little suffering come our way.  Since this is true, the question is not how we can avoid it.  The real question is what do we do with it when it happens to come to us?           

Seldom do I go to the New York Times for inspiration.  I read it on a regular basis, but it does not compare to the Bible!  However, a recent issue had a compelling article by David Brooks entitled, “What Suffering Does.”  I find Brooks a very thoughtful guy.  He clearly reads theology and philosophy.  He quotes people from my theological world that most folks would not know.  This article helped me think about the theme of suffering.           

Early in the article, Brooks offers a telling insight.  “When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness.  It is often the ordeals that seem most significant.  People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”  I find that last sentence profound: people are formed through suffering.  In effect, this means who we are at our core---our deepest self---often is crafted by suffering than by giddiness.  This implies that if we have not suffered a little, we likely are not very deep persons yet.  We have not fully developed.           

Brooks continues to help me understand the phenomenon by identifying a couple steps in the formation process through which suffering takes us.  He says that, “First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself.”  Notice that verb: drags!  This means that suffering is not usually willingly embraced and is not something that is careful of us.  Suffering exposes the superficialities in ourselves.  Perhaps this is why suffering has to drag us there.  On our own, it is quite difficult to dive beneath the routines and normalcies of our lives.           

Brooks’ second point builds on the first one.  He tells us that “suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control.”  This is especially bad news for those of us who spend most of life trying to control ourselves and, especially, control others.  We discover that we are not the puppeteers; instead, we feel more like the puppets of our suffering!  Someone or something else has control of our strings!           

It is at this point that Brooks offers a nice ray of hope.  He acknowledges that “People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence.”  In effect, Brooks is saying that when it gets tough, some of us may come to the awareness that there is an Other---God for some of us---who is in it with us.  In fact, the suffering may even lead to some spiritual growth in us and some good for the world.             

I am amazed to read further and hear Brooks say, “It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call.”  People who are called begin to find a way to respond to the suffering.  These people have to find a way to deal with the suffering and, ultimately, use it for some good.  I am blown away when Brooks says the “right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure.  It is holiness.”  I don’t think Brooks is saying we go into suffering as sinners and come out as saints!           

In my own words, I do think Brooks is saying that suffering can transform us.  It can drag us deeper into ourselves and, then, on to holy ground.  We don’t take off our shoes.  But we do shed our arrogance and egocentrism.  We become humble and available in a different way.           

I think the question whether suffering is a pain or a possibility is a false either/or.  Suffering can be a pain.  But suffering can offer amazing possibilities.  Don’t go looking for it.  But if it comes to you, allow it to do its soul work within you.  

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