Who decided that we ought to avoid suffering?
This is unique to us, isn’t it? Western culture, American culture, particularly dominant, white culture. We are afraid of suffering, and afraid of fear, and afraid of pain. There is a whole industry of physical pain reduction, and whole schools dedicated to the reduction of mental suffering. I wonder how people in developing nations deal with their depression and anxiety. Maybe they just digest it, process it, bathe in it like people did for most of human history. Maybe they are paralyzed by it, and just die from it. I can’t imagine that there is any resolution there that’s necessarily better, or one that we could adopt wholesale here. The point being, we have the means to reduce pain of all kinds, so we do.
Rather than having our elderly live with us, we put them somewhere else. Inconvenience, the most minor form of suffering, is too great for us.
Imagine if the pain told us something. What if there was a purpose to it, in every layer of our selves. Spiritually, emotionally, relationally. What if we are supposed to feel pain sometimes? Rather than avoid shame and guilt, we just embraced it. Yes, I failed. I could have done better, and here’s why I didn’t. It would be refreshing. I’m not even saying that people would go easy on you. I have found in leadership positions, I am a lightning rod for criticism. And when I admit to wrong, people don’t let up, they lay on even more criticism. They’ll kick you while you’re down. But the alternative is worse, I think. I see how people mourn vicariously. When celebrities die, or when one’s sports teams lose, there is this profound, public display of suffering that is disproportionate to the reality within. It just does not matter that much whether the Patriots win or lose, but to whole sections of our communities it is a life and world-changing event to watch them lose. I am suggesting that, instead of mourning our unmet expectations, failed relationships, dead-end jobs, the loss of loved ones, deaths in the family, addiction, all these other things, we engage in trivial things and feel that instead. It’s safer than the real pain right in front of us.
The best mourning I have ever had was when my aunt died. She was the sweetest woman. Soft spoken, short, plain looking, and struggled with her physical and mental health for her whole life. When she passed, it was sudden, but not a surprise. I don’t know how else to explain a tragedy like that – can you expect a tragedy? I don’t think that changes what it is. She had been in and out of the hospital since I can remember. This time, she died. I cried my eyes out with my family. Aunts and uncles were there, my wife, cousins, my sisters. We just sat there and cried. We would hug each other, cry, and then move on to the next person to hug. We’d cry with that person, and then sometimes take a break to cry alone. My aunt, one of the more responsible and proactive ones, brought in lunch so that we could talk and eat, and mourn some more. We just felt it. We washed in it, and lamented out loud. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t good, this was not supposed to happen. The world was not supposed to be this way. I had some harsh words with my God. It was hard. I felt so much pain that day.
It’s better that way. I don’t know that my aunt was particularly “honored” by my mourning. I just needed to feel that pain. I think all that pain needs to be digested, felt, looked at, made public. It doesn’t go away otherwise. And I understand, too, it never actually goes away.
Now, here I am staring down a life change. There’s pain coming. It’s been building for a while. I think it’s good. I’m supposed to suffer. I don’t think we have this dual experience of creation, where God is over “here” but not over “there.” When there’s suffering, it’s not the absence of God. God is in the pain, he is in the suffering. We know he felt suffering of the worst kind, to the point of death – you might believe different, and that’s fine. For me, I find God in the pain and suffering. Just as much, maybe more in the good times. It’s not about waiting until it’s over. When it hurts, I sit down and feel it. Here I am. There he is. This is the pain I feel. I don’t have to run from it. I don’t displace it into sports, or mask it under some pills, or drown it in alcohol. I hurt. Today, I hurt. If you are hurting, I invite you to feel it.
When it’s time to suffer, then suffer. And trust that it won’t be like this forever. I’m reminding myself as much as any reader out there. It won’t be like this forever.