Tested in fire: the positive side of suffering
Some words heard at church led Nicole Law to consider how suffering can be a good teacher.
Quite a few friends of mine are going through a rough patch. Job insecurity, the triggering of old emotional wounds, shaky relationships and the attendant fear that time is slipping from our grasp. These, I considered, are actually all forms of suffering, which got me thinking about the meaning of suffering. And as I did so, I was moved by a verse I heard while attending Mass this weekend.
Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope.
Most of us don’t like suffering. We try our best to avoid it and focus on pursuing pleasures, the temporary satisfaction of our desires. We plug ourselves in, satiate ourselves with food and drink, drown ourselves in online hauls, only to feel the same feeling of emptiness.
Our avoidance of suffering stems from our aversion to pain and discomfort. To suffer also means to be subject to or to undergo; it necessarily involves a certain passivity, the loss of agency, being a victim.
It intrigued me that suffering bore a shade of subjection, of being ‘at the mercy’ of some other force. When we suffer, we are under the influence of external forces (beyond our control: think of the dismal economic situation or the effect of the actions or words of others) and internal forces (our own negative thoughts and emotional turmoil).
I think of suffering as both intensely physical and intensely psychological. You feel it in your body, the tense jaw, the accelerated heart rate; but also in your mind, which refuses to be shut off. Most of all, it is akin to a large rock that is pressing down on one’s frame and one’s soul.
How then can we claim to ‘boast’ of our afflictions? Imagine posting about how one missed the bus due to chronic anxiety on one’s social media as if this were an achievement. It stands at odds with the plethora of ‘feel good’ and ‘curated’ content. Everyone appears to be living their best and most exciting lives.
Is there a place for the less picture-perfect realities of our everyday struggles? I think there is.
While largely counterintuitive, sharing our struggles and pains with others can be an act of solidarity. We may not be fully aware of how many of our close friends and family are suffering. We may not know that perhaps a close friend is struggling with the same emotional problems too.
I have observed more friends adopting a spirit of openness and posting short updates about their bad days. Reading their posts reminds me we are not alone and I was moved to respond to some of them, voicing my support or sending a quick ‘hugs’ emoji.
There is so much strength in acknowledging the difficult phases of our lives and allowing ourselves to process them in a healthy way. Too often, we hide away the less desirable aspects of ourselves for fear of judgment. Yet, sharing our personal struggles is also an invitation to others to glimpse our real humanity. No, we do not always have it all together. Sometimes, the bad days can outnumber the good ones. It can feel like a long tunnel if we go it alone.
I am often tempted to retreat inwards when things get difficult; it is a self-protective mechanism I think others may be familiar with. The challenge is, and remains, to continue to allow myself space to share my struggles with others and to invite them to sit with me in the discomfort.
While I sometimes cannot glimpse the ‘meaning’ of the present suffering, I like to think it is often a form of refinement, as gold is tested in fire.
Endurance is built over time, through experiencing various challenges along life’s journey. This present life is a marathon and not a sprint. Every experience, no matter how difficult, widens our capacity and renders us better able to sustain the blows and bruises.
Reaching out to those we love in these moments allows us to experience support and comfort. We often do not need others to ‘solve’ our problems – simply their sharing them helps us a lot – and there is always an element which remains within our own personal control.
We can begin to hold space for others by listening in a non-judgmental manner and allowing them to express their emotions freely. I find that allowing our chaotic emotional landscape expression disentangles us and frees us from that feeling of powerlessness.
Personally, I have started to pen down quiet revelations on social media as a way for me to approach my struggles in a more conscious way. I have received messages from friends who have been through a similar situation, ‘heart’ reactions to a somber status update or two, and sometimes a little check-in via text.
It’s the small things which count and, slowly, we can break the stigma around suffering, in whatever form it takes. Perhaps we can also begin to view suffering as an opportunity to refine our character and to emerge stronger. There is no shame in struggling, in fact there’s a lot of beauty in it too.
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