Suffering is the unavoidable fate of a fragile, finite being sensitive to physical and emotional distress and deeply attached to other fragile, finite beings. And how to explain and cope with this suffering has been a major preoccupation of philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries. But approached in the right way, suffering can also provide you with an opportunity to shake up your life, change your outlook, and even grow into someone new.
Ask a random person in the street to define or describe suffering and he will almost certainly mention things like cancer, bereavement, war, car crashes, and so on. If you were then to ask him about the benefits, he would probably look puzzled, maybe even angry. For most, suffering is the downside of life – the terrible price we must pay for all the good things. And most devote a great deal of time and energy to avoiding it. In fact, not only do people avoid suffering, they will even avoid those who are themselves suffering, almost as if they fear being somehow infected by their bad luck.
But suffering can lead to growth. Indeed, many people who have been through dreadful traumas look back not with regret but with gratitude. The psychologist Judith Neal, for example, studied 40 individuals who had experienced what she describes as "post-traumatic growth". Each had suffered some kind of catastrophe (divorce, job loss, even life-threatening illness), and each had then undergone a similar pattern of recovery.
Initially, they felt a sense of disorientation and anger. This was soon followed by despair as the hopes and values that had previously sustained them crumbled away. Everything was questioned. As they groped around in this dark void a period of desperate searching then began. Like most people who are subjected to trauma, they needed to make sense of these events and find something to keep them going. Gradually, after more struggle and suffering, they did indeed find a new sense of meaning and, most surprising of all, a new sense of gratitude for having been through the suffering in the first place.
One of the great benefits of suffering, particularly when that suffering is short and intense (as in, for example, a cancer diagnosis or a tricky operation), is the new appreciation for, and pleasure in, the mundane. If you experience this yourself, cultivate the feeling and enter into it as deeply as possible. When you make a cup of coffee, savor the process: focus on the smell, the taste, the first sip. When you run a bath or mow the lawn or take the dog for a walk, hold on to that little shiver of joy and pleasure, be fully conscious of it – revel in it.
Closely related to this new love for the mundane is a re-ordering of priorities. Things that once seemed important, like promotion or a bigger house, often seem trivial, even absurd, in comparison to bereavement or infidelity. And this re-ordering can be tremendously liberating. When things are ticking along normally, many people are preoccupied with boosting their ego and status. And, though they may deny it, this is often the real reason they work and struggle so hard. The so-called rat race is really nothing more than an ego race. And dropping out of that race can bring a wonderful sense of freedom and relief.
Observe people as they interact with one another and you will soon notice how artificial, shallow, and even fake a lot of it really is – even between loved ones. Suffering burns away this surface nonsense and exposes the real person beneath. When in pain, people often seem far more honest and authentic. Indeed, family, friends and work colleagues may say that it is as though they are meeting them for the first time – as if they have finally been "let in". Of course, those in pain are not always aware that this is what they are doing. And many are surprised to find their relationships richer, deeper, and more fulfilling than ever before.
This may be why people in distress tend to seek out others in distress. Physicians (those with depth and wisdom) often advise bereaved or ill patients to volunteer to distribute soup to the homeless or spend time with the elderly and isolated. Naturally, some take offence at this and reply that they are the ones who need help. And yet this is sensible advice. Those in pain bond more quickly and connect more deeply than any other group.
The Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot famously wrote that "the only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless." And he was not alone in this conclusion. Indeed, it is the central belief of Buddhism and much Eastern thought. And this sense of humility is perhaps the greatest blessing suffering brings. Even the terminally ill often shock people with their cheerful, upbeat attitude. The illusion that their insignificant little ego is going to somehow endure forever has been shattered. And this can bring a strange sense of joy and ecstasy (a word derived from the Greek for "to escape" or "get outside" yourself).
The playwright Oscar Wilde offers a good example of this humility in the face of adversity. A brilliant student at Oxford, Wilde had gone on to write a series of plays for the London stage and become one of the most celebrated and admired men of his generation. In his own words "the gods had given me everything". But, following a court case in which he was exposed as a homosexual, Wilde was imprisoned, losing his wife, his children, his reputation, and even his home. From his prison cell, he then wrote a letter to his former lover, the young English aristocrat Alfred Douglas, describing the storm of emotions through which he had passed: the "wild despair" and "terrible, impotent rage". Once this had died down, he saw with a strange clarity that, "there is only one thing for me now – absolute humility."
The greatest danger is self-pity. The more you feel sorry for yourself, the more imprisoned you will be in the dark, narrow box of misery. When suffering, people understandably resent any suggestion that this has value. And, of course, life is not a Disney cartoon. Sometimes suffering is so extreme that it is merely a question of enduring. Above all, you must try to be open to the world (even though your instinct is to shut yourself away). Whether it is a new intimacy, a new appreciation for the mundane, or a new meaning, all depend on first escaping the narrow little ego. Allow the pain to work on you, without clinging to the self or wallowing in self-pity, and you may find this miserable little ego simply disintegrates under the pressure.