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The Collected Wisdom of Suffering

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Nobody wants suffering. When I was a little girl, I remember looking through old photographs and asking my mother about the lives of those in the pictures. She would tell me stories about the struggles they went through. I remember feeling very ill-prepared to deal with the harshness of life, the kind of life the people in the old photographs lived—through wars, the Great Depression, divorces, illnesses, you name it.

Of course, nobody wants to go through suffering. But that is not the reality of life, is it? All of us experience suffering or loss, whether we want to or not. We don’t have a choice. We may know from earlier difficulties that suffering is a great teacher. But while we are in the middle of it, the benefits of the lessons that we are learning from suffering may seem very far away, out of reach, and altogether uncertain.

Today I listened to a famous pastor on television talk about how when we encounter difficulties in life and the doors close in our faces, that means that God has a different plan for us and that there is another door open for us that God wants us to walk through. Maybe that sounds comforting to you, or maybe that sounds like a trite statement: When one door closes, God opens another.

While there are certainly new possibilities we can find when those doors close, however, it doesn’t apply to every situation. Sometimes the doors close and that’s all that we are left to deal with. What new doors are open for the families of those who have died from COVID-19, those on death row, those diagnosed with a terminal illness, or those dealing with a disability, just to name a few situations? Their doors on this Earth have either closed completely or are impossible to find. So I would like to take us a bit deeper into what suffering can teach us. I have recently collected some wisdom from great spiritual teachers that can provide a way through inescapable suffering.

If you have been reading the blogs written by me, you know that I draw a lot from Krista Tippett’s NPR program and podcast On Being. In her latest interview with the artist Devandra Banhart, they both talked about one of their favorite books on suffering, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun. Her wisdom comes from a deep understanding of what suffering can truly teach us when we don’t see the way forward. Here are some quotes from her book that I found to be full of wisdom:

“The only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep. Right now — in the very instant of groundlessness — is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness.”

“If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.”

“Things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Pema Chödrön reminds us that suffering is like being groundless, not knowing how or where we are going to land. It is precisely in this ground-less state that we are most open to life and God, but only if we allow room for them.

We cannot talk about Easter without suffering. If we are to fully enter into the story of Easter and the resurrection, we cannot do that without knowing that suffering is the fundamental part of it. Without suffering, there is no Easter, no resurrection.

Henri Nouwen, a well-known Christian writer and theologian, said this about suffering and bearing the Cross of Jesus in his book Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in the Age of Anxiety:

“This is the mystery of the Christian life. It is not that God came to take our burden away or to take our cross away or to take our agony away. No. God came to invite us to connect our burden with God’s burden, to connect our suffering with God’s suffering, to connect our pain with God’s pain. …

Look at the man who is pierced and broken and you see the love of God radiating out to you. You feel the warmth and the newness streaming through you. Every time you look at your struggles, your pain, and your anguish as the burden you have to bear, see your struggles as being struggled with right there on the cross by the Son of God. Your struggle becomes a light burden because it is the burden of God and God has suffered for us. …

We are suffering almost every moment of our life. There is always something that is a little hard. There is always some pain there that we sort of walk right over and don’t take very seriously. But that pain is a cross. Are we taking it up? Are we acknowledging it? Are we saying yes? Often, it seems as if we are always willing to carry another type of cross than the one we already have.”

Nouwen’s response to suffering is to enter into prayer and be open to the healing power of the cross:

“We are called—we are urged—to bring our pain into the healing presence of the cross. That is what a life of prayer is all about. … Bring it to the One who has already suffered through it all and has lifted up His risen body. Are you really making that connection so that something new can happen? If that connection is being made, something new is being born. Every time a connection is made between us and the light of God, something new happens, some kind of renewal takes place in us.”

Sometimes we may not have the power to pray. We don’t know what to say to God because we don’t have the words to do so. Or we are bone tired and don’t have the strength to pray. Remember that you don’t have to walk this path alone! Ask someone to pray for you. People of God can surround you with their love and prayers, and that can make all the difference.

What lessons have you learned through suffering? What new things have you learned about God and yourself?

For further study:

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön

Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in the Age of Anxiety, by Henri Nouwen

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