Just the word brings up images of death, despair and agony. It may remind us of the worst times we’ve experienced in life: loved ones we’ve lost, relationships that broke up despite all our best hopes, feelings of loneliness and deep depression.
As soon as we’re old enough to know the first hints of suffering from hunger and cold to jealousy or abandonment most of us start seeking the quickest possible antidotes to that suffering.
Our physiological and instinctive reaction to pain and suffering is to escape it.
When you touch a hot stove your hand will be pulled back before you even consciously realize it.
But facing suffering in our conscious mind can be even harder.
That’s because we want to either get rid of the suffering or make sense of it and sometimes neither of these options is possible.
That’s where facing and accepting suffering becomes the only option.
What is suffering?
The fact is that suffering is an inevitable part of life, from aging and death to heartbreak and disappointment.
Physical suffering is pain, aging, deterioration and injury. Emotional suffering is betrayal, sadness, loneliness and feelings of inadequacy or blind rage.
Where suffering becomes even harder, however, is in our minds and in the stories we make about it.
Faced with the painful reality of suffering many of us try to make sense out of it in a framework we can understand: we ask questions and struggle with the idea of fairness, for example, or situate difficult experiences and trials within a religious or spiritual context.
Many even cling to false ideas about the meaning of karma in order to reassure themselves that suffering is happening for a good or “justified” reason.
Our technologically-advanced Western societies often respond to death and suffering by banalizing and trivializing them. We try to escape the trauma by denying it really exists in the first place.
But the fact is that this is never going to work.
Suffering is part of existence, and even the most picture-perfect life on the outside often has a deep core of pain in the past which you know nothing about as an outside observer.
As DMX puts it — quoting Nietzsche — in his 1998 song “Slippin’:”
“To live, is to suffer.
To survive, well, that’s to find meaning in the suffering.”
Here are ten aspects of suffering that can help you to lead a fuller life:
1. Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low
The fact of the matter is that you aren’t going to be the first person in history who avoids any suffering.
Sorry to break it to you.
But suffering is the price of the ticket for this ride we call life.
Even if you try to shut down whatever suffering you think is under your control it won’t work. For example if you’ve been let down in love and put your guard up you may miss out on the next chance for a loving partner, leading to years of regret and loneliness.
But if you’re overly open to love you may get burned and have your heart broken.
Either way you have to take a risk and you simply must accept that suffering is not optional.
The more you try to dodge rejection or get an easy go of it in life and love the more you are going to end up on the sidelines. You can’t just guard all your emotions and become a robot: and why would you want to anyway?
You’re going to suffer. I’m going to suffer. We’re all going to suffer.
You only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low. So don’t shut down the whole production just because you’re getting hurt: either way it’s going to continue and your only real choice is whether to be a proactive partner in life or a reluctant prisoner being dragged behind a horse.
2. Let the pain push you forward
Nothing is going to hit you as hard as life. And there’s going to be times that leave you literally on the floor.
Being overly happy about that or full of toxic positivity is not the answer.
You won’t get rich after bankruptcy by “thinking positive,” you’ll get it by digging down to the roots of how you approach money and your relationship with yourself and your power.
The same thing goes for the big and small traumas of life.
You can’t choose them, and even if your choice contributed to something that’s happened and caused you suffering it’s now in the past.
The only freedom you have now is to grow from the pain.
Let the pain reshape your world and hone your determination and grit. Let it build your resilience and fortitude in the face of suffering.
Let the fear and despair take you into your core and find the healing power of your breath and the life within you. Let the situation around and within you that seems completely unacceptable be met with acceptance and strength.
The post-pandemic world will be shaped by how we react to fear, and that journey is already underway.
3. Suffering can teach you humility and grace
If you’ve struggled with asthma then you know how incredible it can feel to take a deep breath without any trouble.
If you’ve experienced the worst heartbreak then you know how finding lasting and real love can make you feel.
Suffering can take us lower than the rocks and reduce us to less than we ever thought possible.
The suffering of war has reduced human beings to mere skeletons. The horrific suffering of cancer has turned once vibrant men and women into physical husks of their former selves.
When we suffer we are forced to drop all expectations and demands. It can be our chance to notice even the smallest positives that still exist, like the kind person who comes to visit us as we recover from a devastating and nearly fatal addiction, or the old friend who brings over food after a painful loss of our partner.
In the depths of suffering the miracle of life can still shine out.
4. Suffering can help you hone your willpower
What I mean is that even a flower growing up through the sidewalk crack has to struggle and feel pain to bloom.
Anything you accomplish has some pushback and life is a dynamic – and sometimes painful – process.
Although some people may seek out suffering as part of a spiritual or religious path (which I discuss below), generally it is not a choice.
However, how you respond is a choice.
You can actually use suffering and the pain you have been through to hone your willpower.
Let suffering and the memory of it be the catalyst that allows you to become a more powerful person: powerful at helping yourself, powerful at helping others, powerful in accepting the sometimes harsh nature of reality.
5. Why does this sh*t always happen to me?
One of the worst things about suffering can be the feeling that we’re all alone.
We start to internalize the idea that suffering has come to us for a bigger reason or some kind of “guilt” or sin we have committed.
This idea can be linked to religious systems and philosophies as well as an inbuilt tendency of sensitive people to blame themselves and seek the answer to disturbing things that happen.
We may push down our own vulnerability and believe that we have somehow “deserved” our suffering and must suffer through it on our own.
An opposite but equally harmful reaction is to treat suffering as personalized: why does this sh*t always happen to me? we shout.
Our mind tries to make sense of awful things that happen by either blaming ourselves and thinking we deserve it or by believing we have been singled out by some cruel force that picks on us for no reason.
The truth is you are neither exceptionally bad and “deserving” of suffering, nor are you the only one who’s being rained down upon with holy vengeance.
You’re experiencing suffering and pain. It’s hard and it is what it is.
6. Suffering can be your window onto a brighter world
“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
– Paulo Coelho
Suffering is generally something we categorize along with other undesirable and awful things in the corner of our mind.
On one side you have victory, pleasure, love and belonging, on the other you have defeat, pain, hate and isolation.
Who would want any of that negative stuff?
We push away these painful and difficult experiences because they cause us suffering.
But suffering is also one of our biggest teachers and all of us are going to be getting to know it in one form or another for the rest of our lives.
Why not pull up a chair and order a drink?
Suffering is going to be sticking around either way. And sometimes the sweat and blood and tears can be the haze that comes before your greatest triumph.
Sometimes the gut punch that lands you in ER at age 16 from a drug overdose can be the experience you look back on 20 years later and see was absolutely necessary for the mission you eventually had to help others through their own struggles.
Suffering is no joke – nor should you “want” it – but it can end up becoming your window onto a brighter world.
7. Suffering can deepen your faith and spiritual life
Suffering can deepen our faith and spiritual experiences.
All life suffers in the literal sense. Organisms feel cold and hunger, animals being hunted feel fear. Humans have consciousness of death and fear the unknown.
Along the path of life people respond in many ways to the unknown and their own inner life.
The Syrian Christian hermit Saint Simoen Stylites (Simon the Elder) lived on a one-square-meter platform atop a 15-meter pillar for 37 years because monastic life was too extravagant for him in his quest for higher meaning. Food was brought up to him by a ladder.
In the pain of suffering some individuals are able to find a cleansing fire. They are able to use suffering to burn through the layers of illusion inside themselves and enter the present moment in all its imperfection and pain.
Instead of suffering increasing the desire to no longer exist, spirituality and inner experience can be strengthened and suffering can bring us to a stronger determination and drive to be present and exist.
8. Suffering can increase your compassion for others
When we experience suffering – or even choose it as some monks and others have – we begin to deeply appreciate the immense hardship that many people around us are experiencing. We empathize more and we want to help, even if it is just to be there for them.
Having compassion and empathy for others also involves starting by having compassion and empathy for ourselves. Before we can truly find love and intimacy with others we must find it within ourselves, and before we can hope for compassion and reciprocity to flow toward us we must become the engine of it ourselves.
Suffering and trials of life may increase the lines on our face, but it can also strengthen the kindness inside of us. It can forge an unbreakable authenticity and desire to give back that nothing can break.
When you’ve experienced the very worst of life you realize that truly one of the greatest gifts and opportunities is any chance make someone else’s time on this planet just a little bit better.
9. Suffering can be a valuable reality check
Instead of constantly hearing that “everything is going to be OK” or to “think positive,” suffering can be a painful reminder and reality check that no, not everything necessarily is going to be “fine” at least not in an immediate or literal way.
Would you rather the truth or comforting lies?
The problem is that even if you said comforting lies once you know they’re lies they won’t satisfy you.
Regardless of your faith or level of optimism there are tragedies, setbacks and challenges which happen in life that can stun even the strongest of us.
There are experiences that can haunt you for the rest of your life, from being a refugee in war to watching a loved one die.
Running away from that or pretending it’s “not so bad” won’t help you or anyone else. Taking that pain and accepting it and seeing that it’s as much part of reality as the good things is the only real option.
There can be times when accepting that life sucks right now can actually lead you to stop chasing fairytales and codependent relationships and reclaim your personal power.
10. When the going gets tough, the tough get going
The truth is that life is hard and sometimes even downright overwhelming.
As much as you may want to give up – and even sometimes temporarily do – you need to get back up and keep moving. More people are depending on you than you know, and some of the greatest figures in history who have made the world a better place struggled deeply in ways that most of us couldn’t even imagine.
The blind French author Jacques Lusseyrand heroically fought against the Nazis in the French Resistance and was imprisoned at Buchenwald camp, but never lost his faith that life was worth living. Sadly, life had other plans and in the summer of 1971 at only 46-years-old he was killed along with his wife Marie in a car accident.
Life hits hard, and it’s often deeply unfair. Repressing or justifying that won’t change that fact.
Figures who many admire from Abraham Lincoln and Sylvia Plath to Pablo Picasso and Mahatma Gandhi struggled enormously. Lincoln and Plath both had severe depression and suicidal thoughts, while Picasso lost his sister Conchita when she was only seven from diptheria, despite promising God he would give up painting if He would spare the sister he loved so much.
Life will take all your assumptions and hopes and throw them out the window. It will make you suffer more than you ever thought possible. But through it all there is a shred of faith, strength and hope that will always be there deep inside.
As Rocky Balboa says in the 2006 film of the same name:
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”