There are only two things which pierce the human heart. Beauty and affliction.
This quote from Simone Weil reflects the power of beauty and affliction to move us. Both cut through the superficiality of daily life to help us see what truly matters. Affliction, or suffering, comes in many forms. Some is forced upon us against our will: disease, injustice, oppression. Some is the result of our own mistakes or actions that went awry. Some just happens. The question isn’t why. Get in line to ask that one. Rather, what do we do with suffering?
One benefit of suffering is that it forges empathy. Or it can. I know that when my wife went through chemotherapy for breast cancer, there were, in general, two types of patients in the chemo ward. The first — and fewest — were those who turned inward and became bitter. The second were those who, despite their own pain, reached out to others. They learned from their own struggle. As a result, they were better able to assist others going through their own dark seasons and hard places.
Suffering and learning
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
This quote from Aeschylus, the originator of literary tragedy, was famously used by Robert Kennedy after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It reveals another aspect of suffering: We cannot truly learn without it. We can gather information, facts and data. But deep learning — wisdom — only comes through applying that learning through experience. And experience is not always a gentle teacher. We remember best those moments that were most emotionally charged.
There’s a reason many writers, composers and other artists often create their greatest works during times of heartache. We are more in touch with our emotions and we understand the world in a far richer way out of our suffering than we do during periods of elation. It may not be fun. But great art isn’t about fun. It’s about truth. And for complex reasons, we are able to see what is true and what matters with greater clarity through our pain more than through our pleasure. Or put another way, we’re more motivated to express our deepest thoughts as a way of coming to grips with our suffering. Wisdom and art frequently come at a painful cost. And yet, in hindsight, we tend to find that the suffering was worth it.
The value of struggle
Suffering can foster empathy, increase wisdom and change how we view the world and others. But it can also help us to grow and overcome.
Think of the mountain climber or triathlon winner. Each endures tremendous suffering not because he or she enjoys it, but because the ultimate goal is worth the struggle. In fact, that end result is only attainable because of the struggle. Most of us aren’t the best in our fields because we’re not willing to pay the price. “No pain, no gain” is fine we think, for a middle school PE slogan. But in reality, we dislike the pain so much that we sacrifice the gain. Simply put, greatness doesn’t happen without struggle. And struggle means suffering of some kind.
The idea of “grit” or the ability to endure what is hard in order to achieve something greater has become increasingly popular as a concept these days. But we’re still reticent to practice it. Why?
Because in the US, we have made an idol of comfort and we protect that comfort at all costs. We prefer a numb existence over the effort and discomfort that comes with striving or trying something new. But as all good travelers know, you never grow or truly feel alive inside that fluffy, padded comfort zone. Sure, it may not feel pleasant to step outside it and enter the struggle. But like going to the gym for a hard workout, you don’t focus on what it feels like at the moment. You think about how good you’ll feel when you’re done.
Is it worth it?
Here’s the funny thing. From my own experience and from that of everyone I know who has endured great suffering, the vast majority say the same thing: It was worth it. To anyone who hasn’t been through such pain, that seems unimaginable. And yet, it’s a common response. The suffering has produced hard-earned rewards.
Whether it is increased empathy, wisdom or growth, you do discover — but only by going through it — that suffering has value. Again, you need not pursue affliction for its own sake. Just realize when it finds you that there is blessing on the other side, and rarely in the way you expect.
In the end, the hard won lessons are the ones we end up valuing most.
Read the overview on the 3 things you most avoid that may be what you most need if you haven’t already to understand better why suffering, failure and boredom may not be all you thought they were.