Necessary Suffering

Philippine Star

Sunday Life

Sunday, August 24, 2008

When I was a little boy, my elder brother Ducky, who is 14 years older than I, liked to tell me and my siblings interesting stories about dubious medieval “saints” and how they supposedly earned their esteemed titles during the early days of Christianity. According to Ducky, these so-called “saints” achieved sainthood through sheer physical suffering. Their lives weren’t anything like those of true martyrs who lived or died under hostile circumstances inflicted on them by the enemies of the faith. These were people who inflicted pain on themselves by way of, say, climbing a mountain on their knees, or subjecting their bodies to fire or other extreme physical tests and dedicating the pain they endured to God. Looking back, one might say their pain was totally self-inflicted and uncalled for.

In today’s world, they would be candidates for a TV show like Fear Factor. More than sainthood, they should get some recognition from Ripley for passing tests of extreme physical endurance. Some of them, I believe, have been taken off the A-list of saintly intercessors in heaven.

How could these people miss the whole point of authentic martyrdom by mistaking just any kind of suffering for the real thing? While one may argue that all suffering feels real, we need to differentiate authentic suffering from the needless ones. Real, authentic suffering is necessary. And this suffering that is undertaken and eventually embraced and endured, even if one did not accept it initially, is borne for a cause that is greater than oneself. Outside of that, most other suffering is probably the needless type.

Simply put, why go through pain when, by taking certain legitimate steps, you can avoid it, or put an end to it? Isn’t it a form of needless suffering to live through a headache you can very well take a pill for?

And yet, it happens to us all the time as individuals, families, communities, and even as whole nations and peoples. We bring needless suffering upon ourselves and others all the time. When we are too lazy to think things through, when we refuse to take the time to solve the easy problems in our lives, we end up adding needless complications. The simple planning of trips, for instance, will save us a lot of pain at the gas pump. The efficient allocation of the hours in a day will give us more time to spend with our loved ones. Or, being aware of our penchant for impulse spending will save us the pain of bankruptcy. With a little foresight and awareness, life can be free of needless suffering. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, theoretically at least, it is.

The trick is to know when we are setting ourselves up to suffer needlessly, and when we use our pain to make us bigger than what we know ourselves to be.

Let’s talk about real suffering that is thrown in our laps by the Gods — like cancer, or losing a job or seeing one’s home burn to the ground. I sometimes find myself clasping my hands close to my chest and feeling a lump in my throat as I watch, say, images of victims of war or crime or see people suffering due to plain bad luck.

I see in their situation real suffering that they must face. The other day, I saw on TV a woman leaving her small home in Lanao because of the recent MILF attacks. I was torn, watching her from the comfort of my bed, her face filled with anxiety. I felt guilty being so comfortable compared to her and how I was not even thinking of doing anything to alleviate her condition. Could it be said that hers was authentic suffering while my mine was a less noble one?

Nobody really likes to suffer. That is why more often we would choose needless suffering because we do not need to walk the whole nine yards. Unlike with authentic suffering, we can stop the pain anytime. And we do so through denial, or plain refusal to see the solution to the pain. And we do this quite ingeniously, like when we say we are powerless to do anything about the situation.

How do we deal with suffering that has been with us for some time? In the case of lingering emotional trauma from early childhood, often, we suffer more  (and needlessly) when we prolong the trauma by simply refusing to face it once and for all, much less talk about it. Or when forced to do so, we find a way out by saying we are over it, just to end the conversation. Worse, some of us say we have “lifted our problems up to the Lord,” thus closing the issue. I am not knocking those who try to sublimate their pain. Some of them may be sincere and really mean it. But I have seen myself and others do this and, honestly, I see a copout mechanism in place of honest confrontation.

But a lot actually happens when we do the heroic thing and embrace the pain. By this, I mean opening our eyes and looking at the extent of the damage that the suffering being forced upon us suggests, and eventually saying yes to it. We put a stop to resisting and accept fully the consequences of the tribulation thrown at us. This way, the pain becomes meaningful and a necessary ingredient for maturity. The suffering ceases to be  needless.

When we have reached such a place, we discover that the very suffering that repelled us has transformed itself into something like an elixir that makes us feel more alive. We’ve heard of  victorious tribes that eat the body parts of their enemies in the belief that they will gain the strength of their opponents.  Metaphorically, that is exactly what happens to us when we embrace the pain. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

Facing our fears and going through necessary suffering awakens us to gifts we possess but which have remained hidden from us. The very power of fear that used to haunt us comes back to honor us by giving us its power. And because of that, life itself begins to feel different. Where once it used to be indifferent or even hostile and did not seem to care whether we live or die, it now feels like a friend who communicates with us intimately and affirms our rightful place in the world. It tells us to partake more of what life has in store.

We have heard it said many times that we must choose our battles carefully. This is wise counsel. It is equally important to choose one’s sufferings wisely. Necessary suffering makes us grow. Needless suffering stunts our growth.

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Craig Peihopa
12 years ago

Very thought provoking post Jim. There is much here worth pondering on.
Perhaps the suffering worthy of note is the suffering forced upon people caused by decisions or choices made by others be they regime’s, governments and ruthless people generally. It is the steely resolve of some people amidst great struggles and tribulation where they choose to rise above their situation and serve others. They often do not choose to become beacons of hope and goodwill, But I am grateful that they do and do so sometimes, at great personal cost. They are selfless sufferers who survive and do so out of a support for, and a love of, their fellow beings and God.

12 years ago

Saying yes to suffering: this is probably the hardest thing to do but the wisest one on earth. but everytime i feel the impulse of yes to suffering, i also feel the power within me at the same time beyond me. it’s a mystical moment that makes me more alive as a human being though.thank you for this inspiring post…

12 years ago

I agree with Dfish, when we surpass suffering, most of the time, we feel amazed with ourselves on how we were able to survive such traumatic event. Truly, it’s the power within us that we never thought we had coupled with power that fuels the universe.

12 years ago

I find it difficult to distinguish between necessary and needless suffering. To which category does fasting at Lent or during Ramadan belong? How about staying celibate? Putting oneself in the line of fire? martyrdom? climbing Mt Everest? Migrating to a country with no prospect of a career there? I’m trying to come to grips with the notion that the answer might lie with the goal of the suffering. If it is for the betterment of others (eg. one’s children, parent or friend), then it is much less a necessary suffering as it is a worthwhile one. It is worthwhile because it is couched in love.

Bass Poet
Bass Poet
12 years ago

Hi Sir Jim,

Self-inflicted suffering can be a nasty habit that can be addictive and can lead to apathy and passivity. I feel pain so please honour and emulate me…I am sometimes a self-inflicting pain maniac. It feeds the ego, it highly satisfies the demon in me. I believed the necessary suffering are destined to uncover our power within which is infinitely strong and good. If our suffering is based and borne out of love…of mercy then is it therapeutic, healing and transformative…it heals and seals conflicts and travails. However, if it is based on needless suffering which most political, cultural and ethnic conflicts are rooted within, then as you’ve said, Sir Jim, it hampers and stunts growth and the most unfortunate events happens such as deaths, genocide, wars, etc. To suffer is to be human, to be humane is to be the suffering, be the mercy, be compassion and forgiveness. Not just do this in memory of me, to quote St. Augustine but “Be this in Memory of Me.”

hector olympus
12 years ago

necessary sufferings are allowed by God in order to bring us on to maturity.

As the bible says, “He can make beauty for ashes”. We may not understand, we may not see, we may not hear or feel the hand of God in those situations, but all we know and we trust is that God is at work to complete what He has began in our lives.

12 years ago

hello sir Jim!

i love reading your posts so i thought of adding you to my blog roll. you really have excellent ideas and i need that to feed my mind. more power! i’ll look forward for your next posts.ü