Monday, June 11, 2007

Suffering from the Inside Out

by Troy Chapman

I was talking to a young guy who had a short sentence and he was telling me about the various pains of his situation. I could tell he was frustrated and hurting; he’d lost contact with his kids and thought his wife may be seeing someone else in his absence. I listened because he just needed to talk about it. Eventually he asked about my situation — how long I’d been in and when I was getting out. I told him I had twenty-some years in and wasn’t sure when I might be released.

He was quiet for a minute and seemed to be embarrassed on hearing this. Finally he sort of chuckled and said, “Here I am crying about my problems and you’re doing a 60- to 90-year bit. You must be sick of hearing this stuff from short-timers.” I shook my head and told him no. “What you’re dealing with is as hard for you as what I’m dealing with is for me. It’s all real and it all hurts, right?”

He thought about this for a moment and seemed relieved to hear me say it. He knew what he was feeling was real and it hurt, yet because my situation was objectively worse he felt an impulse to dismiss his own inner voice that told him “I’m hurting.” Some external voice told him that what he was feeling wasn’t valid in the face of my “worse” situation.

We’re taught to think this way. If I’m suffering depression but have a relatively good life — I’m not homeless or starving — I’m encouraged to compare my own suffering to someone who has it worse, someone who has no home and doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. The implication is that my suffering isn’t as valid as theirs. It’s the old saw about a guy complaining because he has no shoes and meeting a man who has no feet.

I suppose there’s something to be said for that thinking. We should be grateful and know that someone, somewhere is probably suffering more than we are. But we shouldn’t make the leap to conclude that because that’s true, our suffering is somehow invalid or trivial. Suffering isn’t an objective thing; it’s more about our inner response to external situations than it is about the situations themselves.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about suffering well is that all suffering — our own as well as that of others — needs to be seen from the inside out and never from the outside in. A child who thinks there are monsters under the bed is suffering terror no less real than a woman who’s afraid her abusive spouse may kill her. If we see these two situations from the outside in, we may dismiss the child’s suffering as “silly,” but I don’t believe that’s healthy.

We do the same thing to ourselves, rejecting and feeling guilty about suffering that isn’t “significant.” Obviously we need to use wisdom in responding to different situations. Some suffering calls for more attention and different action, but that’s not the same as this value judgment we make about it.

When I began seeing my own and all suffering as valid I began to develop deeper empathy for myself and others. And I found that suffering, when honored and respected in this way, flows more naturally. When we dishonor it by dismissing and trivializing it, it hides, turns into shame, anger and self-hatred — all things that will come out in some way in our lives and ultimately cause more suffering.

For me, all suffering is real and worthy of attention. If you’re suffering and don’t feel you have a right to feel the way you do, throw that thinking out in reference to yourself as well as others. Suffering just is, and there’s no such thing as legitimate or illegitimate suffering. When we validate all suffering, it doesn’t create a bunch of crybabies as we’ve been told. It actually helps people process their suffering in healthier ways and move through it, because to validate suffering is to validate the person who is experiencing it, just as to invalidate it is to invalidate the person. Sometimes it takes nothing more than for someone to say “I hear you and I’m listening” to empower another to make it through.

Sketch by Troy Chapman


Anonymous said...

I can really relate to this. I've been practicing being kind to myself about all the ways I'm a little nuts (i.e., human) and I have also been feeling a lot less angry at the world in general. When I read this post I was able to put those two things together.

Neeraja said...

Dear Troy:
I, too, have been thinking quite a bit about 'suffering well', as you put it. Perhaps I have even come close to it when it is my own suffering.
But watching those I love suffer (a loved aunt has been in coma now for four months and shows little sign of coming out of it) still baffles me: how do I do this 'well'? How do I validate that entire family (and their suffering) which has received blow after blow, for the last two decades and experiences little respite between blows? I, too, am asking along with them :"Why them? Why them again and again?" Would love some help on this. Thanks! Neeraja Raghavan, Bangalore, India.

Friends of Troy Chapman said...

Dear Neeraja, It is good to hear from you and this is an excellent question. It is difficult to see others' suffering — especially when we feel they're getting more than they are able to handle. When Maryann read me your comment, I thought of an old spiritual called "Lonesome Valley." The lyrics are: "You got to walk that lonesome valley/You got to go there by yourself/Oh nobody else can go there for you/You got to go there by yourself."

For me, this speaks to the truth that when it comes to suffering, we each have to do our own. As much as we might like to step in for others, especially our children and loved ones, we can't. Each of us must face our own valley from where we are spiritually.

But if suffering is one of the great mysteries of life, love is the other. And I think that this is our calling in the face of others' suffering — to be present in love. For me, love has three aspects: reverence, goodwill and assistance. When applied to suffering, this means having reverence for the mystery of suffering as well as for the person enduring it. Reverence is simply standing before a thing in humility, bowing to it, if you will. Goodwill is the desire for this person to be whole. Assistance is doing whateverwe can to facilitate their wholeness.

As I've suffered in my life, it was those people who were simply present and loved me — without trying to save me or fix me — who have been most valuable and have helped me come through more whole.

We can't shield anyone from suffering, but we can stand with them in love as they experience and move through it. Indeed, teaching us to do this well may be the very purpose of suffering. For it is while we watch others suffer that our love is called to its greatest heights.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend reading Psalm 88 in the Bible. It's a Psalm that speaks to anyone suffering. As you read it, understand that it's speaking as much about Jesus Christ's suffering as it is yours, if you're going through suffering. Then turn over to James 1 and hear him tell you that suffering is part of following Christ. He is God in the flesh, God's One and Only Son, sent to live among us, to live a perfect life, and then to die a gruesome death for all those who would put of their sins and put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ and their one and only Savior. I am grateful for Troy's post and his honesty, but the thing missing is any meaning to it all. Suffering for the sake of suffering is empty and sad. Suffering because God is shaping us more in His likeness - suffering to prepare us for an eternity in His presence - that's purposeful and hopeful. It tells us that He is sovereign and in control of all things. He's directing the course of events. He knows what we need, and sometimes it's a trial to grow and shape us. Lay your burdens at the feet of Christ and ask Him to give you the strength to press on. Blessing in Christ, Ashok