by Troy Chapman
There are two kinds of suffering in life. The first is caused by life itself. This suffering is unavoidable, but life is a dance and whenever anything happens to us — including suffering — we’re called upon to respond. This is where the second kind of suffering comes in. It’s the suffering we cause ourselves by responding in destructive ways to the suffering of life. This suffering is completely avoidable.
I’ve learned this from my own life. As a young man I had a lot of problems and was hurting in many ways. I responded to my pain in very destructive ways that led to more and more suffering for me and others in the world. I was sent to prison, which was another source of suffering to which I was called to respond. Looking back, I decided I didn’t want to repeat the same process that had brought me here and began looking for ways to respond to the pain of prison that wouldn’t lead to yet more of the same. I’ve learned to respond to the suffering of prison in healthy rather than unhealthy ways and this is one of the most important skills I’ve acquired in life. Here are three of the ways I’ve learned to respond to suffering so as not to compound it.
1. Accept suffering as part of being human. We’ve been sold the idea that suffering “shouldn’t” happen. That it’s an injustice and an outrage. This idea has been one of my worst enemies as I’ve faced suffering in my life. It leads to a war mentality that unfolds in our internal dialogue, our thinking and our behavior in the world, and always causes more suffering.
Yet many of us have a problem with the idea of accepting suffering. I did for many years, then I drew a distinction between acceptance and resignation. I had been confusing these two. Acceptance simply means facing the reality of what is, and not getting into “shoulds” and “oughts” about it. We can accept a thing without resigning ourselves to it. When we accept something we are completely free to work at changing it if we feel we want it to be different in the future. Indeed, efforts to change things are always more effective when we accept them first as they are.
Resignation, on the other hand, is a refusal to accept combined with a belief that things will never change. It’s an abandonment of hope that creates perpetual anger at life and leads to more suffering as surely as waging war does. Acceptance stands between these two destructive poles, and when we accept suffering we regain our power to face and even be transformed by it.
2. See suffering as a fundamental point of connection. Every human being who’s ever walked the earth, all the way back to the misty beginnings of our species, has suffered. When we suffer today, there’s a point of connection with all our ancestors. Sometimes when I’m suffering I ponder this truth and draw strength from all those who have come before me. Not only that, but if I cast my mind outward concentrically in the present I find the same thing: everyone here has suffered. Countless numbers are in the midst of it right now even as I am.
And if I go forward in time, I know it will be true in the future as well. Suffering, which often makes us feel totally alone, is something we share with all human beings. To suffer is to be initiated into the human family. It’s an initiation into full personhood. A means by which we truly become our whole selves. We try in so many ways to be whole in isolation, but this is an oxymoron. Who we are is deeply connected to the fabric of humanity, and we can never be whole as single stitches connected only to a few other stitches closest to us. Suffering is the thread by which we connect to every other stitch in the fabric and thus find our whole selves.
One result of this is compassion — an opening of our heart to ourselves and others. Another is an awakening and deepening of our consciousness. Thinking of suffering in this way, as an invitation to join humanity more fully and to find ourselves, is something that has helped me immensely. Our choice is never between suffering or not-suffering; it’s between suffering meaningfully and suffering meaninglessly. To embrace it as a point of connection is to choose to suffer meaningfully.
3. See suffering as an invitation to examine ourselves. Sometimes suffering is caused by spiritually overstaying our welcome. I once pictured this as being like a boy who has a favorite pair of shoes. These shoes had served him well. They were like an old friend and were lucky, too. He always ran faster, hit balls harder and caught them surer when he had his lucky shoes on. Then his feet outgrew the shoes. Still, he refused to give them up. He continued to wear them even though doing so was painful. His toes were cramped up inside and he couldn’t run or plant his feet properly to hit a ball well or sprint to catch one.
The shoes for me represent habit, ways of thinking and being that worked in the past but no longer do. If we see life as a spiritual journey we know that there is a time for staying and a time for moving on. Change is often painful but it’s one of those unavoidable pains of life. If we don’t change, we don’t grow and if we don’t grow, we die. Yet, we often become attached to certain stages in our lives and don’t want to move on. We outgrow our spiritual shoes. And when that happens we have to choose between the pain of going forward or the greater pain of daily stuffing our feet into shoes that are too small.
Psychologists talk about “free floating anxiety” and other forms of inner suffering that seem to have no source. When I experience this kind of suffering where I can’t identify the source, I see it as a time to examine my life. I’ve found again and again that there is a source: I’ve spiritually outgrown my current place and I am experiencing the pain of trying to cram myself into that too-small space, day after day, out of habit. When I muster my courage, say my goodbyes and move on, this form of suffering immediately disappears.
Though we’re looking at individual suffering here, it’s worth noting that I believe this process of refusing to move forward when it’s time to do so accounts for a large percentage of the collective suffering of humanity. We are being called to a new and higher place spiritually yet we’re afraid and so resist this move. We stubbornly cling to obsolete ways of thinking and being and are causing ourselves a lot of unnecessary suffering. This fear of unfolding is visible everywhere and many are even trying to drag us further backward, they are so terrified of moving beyond where we are. But we will go forward — it’s just a matter of how much suffering we will cause ourselves resisting it.
At any rate, these three ways of seeing suffering have helped me process it in ever more healthy ways. I’ve had to grow into them, and this didn’t come without struggle, but I’ve learned not to turn my struggles into wars, to struggle toward greater connection rather than away from pain and to trust rather than fear life when it pushes me forward. As a result, my suffering has decreased, and that which remains is more meaningful.
Painting by Troy Chapman