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.