Suffering is. There is no escape from suffering, and if you live with your eyes open then suffering is available on a daily, dare I say hourly, basis. Sometimes it visits as a horrible crisis or tragedy. Sometimes it whispers from the walls of an empty room saying “you are alone”. And sometimes it arrives as unmet longings.
How I wish that suffering was not. I, like you, would do most anything to escape the regularity of suffering. And I, like you, have developed many strategies, some conscious and some unconscious, in order to escape suffering. And paradoxically, the strategies usually bring on more suffering at some later point. This wish to circumvent suffering is the one that leads us to say profoundly unhelpful and dismissive things to others in times of pain. We say, “it will be alright”, “this must be happening for a reason”, “one day you’ll be thankful for this”, “God wants you learn something”, “look at all the good that is coming from this”, or “let’s look on the bright side”. All of these sentiments actually mean “I have no idea what to say about suffering right now and it scares me terribly so let’s just decide to pretend that it’s not real”. The tragic result is that we haven’t actually cared for one another, we’ve alienated those that we love, and we’ve missed a critical opportunity for our own maturity.
Suffering is the mighty crossroads at which we stand over and over again. One road leads to freedom and life. The other leads to bitterness, control and death. The one who chooses the road of freedom is the one who does not war against suffering. This one considers it to be an acceptable part of the life journey. The other sets the heart against suffering and becomes hard, manipulative, deceptive, and inauthentic. The choices made at each suffering crossroad manufacture the quality of the present and the future.
Instead of bracing against suffering, the daily opportunity is to greet suffering and incorporate it into the present moment. Suffering calls for encounter with self and others. It asks us to be humble, to keep loving self and neighbor, to be compassionate, and let go of our demand that the world work according to my wishes. It takes a great deal of courage and integrity to suffer well. It takes a great deal of courage to be with those who are suffering without asking them to stop suffering. But meaningful life is found in courage that leads to compassion without demand. When suffering ceases to be the enemy and becomes the accepted companion then there is room for the unexpected, and that just may be redemptive.