On Suffering

dreamstime_xs_13357663Our attitudes and beliefs about suffering are rarely discussed even though we’re barraged with details of tragic incidents or may experience personal suffering ourselves. How we come to terms with these incomprehensible parts of life can influence both our outlook and our approach in life.

If we believe the world is a cold, heartless place, the question becomes, “what’s the point of it all?”  But if we can find some understanding or peace, we can prevent these feelings from overcoming us.

In this week’s New York Times, there was a thought-provoking article by Pico Iyer titled, The Value of Suffering. His piece explored the notion that our view of suffering has a large impact on the experience itself – “that suffering is reality even if unhappiness need not be our response to it”.  (See link below)

Iyer describes beliefs from other countries, like Japan, where many consider suffering a privilege, as it brings hidden blessings. In this culture, while we don’t go as far as welcoming pain, we often see increased appreciation and clarity after a period of extreme hardship or a crisis, like having cancer.  These experiences can serve as a wake-up call and shift us towards action or increased compassion.

Another point the article addresses is the tendency to project our perceived suffering onto others. For example, we may assume that someone with a severe disability is miserable when that may not be the case at all.  It’s also important to make a distinction between pain and suffering.  While some pain is chronic, much is a single event that only turns into on going suffering if it isn’t processed.

If we give suffering its due respect, it loses its hold on us. Part of doing so is accepting it as part of life.  This is easier when we consider the natural order of things, like a lion killing a zebra, or a naturally occurring disaster like an earthquake.

Particularly hard to come to terms with, are intentionally cruel or evil acts. Making meaning or finding value in suffering of this nature may be considered offensive.  While we may see increased drive for justice or people coming together in a crisis, these outcomes only begin to touch such atrocities. We each need to find our own response and understanding, which for some, may be based on spiritual beliefs.

When we accept the reality of suffering, a softening occurs which can transform our experience.  Establishing meaning may not be possible, but saying that it matters and acknowledging the pain and confusion that suffering brings can open our hearts. Iyer concluded with, “…you (can) be strong enough to witness suffering and yet human enough not to pretend to be a master of it.”

Things to consider in relation to suffering:

1. Remember that suffering and grief are universal. Feeling alone can compound suffering.  Know that it is a universal experience and that you are part of the universe.

2.  Consider your spiritual beliefs.  Some believe in Karma, reincarnation, souls choosing their life path, or a divine plan.  These beliefs provide explanations for suffering that are comforting and grounding for many. 

3.  Do something to help.  Work towards making positive changes in the world or help someone who is grieving. Know that in these small ways you are making a difference.

 4. Don’t assume what someone else is experiencing.  People in some cultures, like Japan, view suffering as a privilege because of the hidden blessings that result. Things that we may find unbearable may acceptable for others.

5. Be kind. By perpetuating kindness, you are countering the cruelties in life.

6. If sadness easily overtakes you, choose to limit what you let in.  Some may feel that to really care they must bear hearing about all tragedies, even if it is deeply disturbing to them.  Consider, instead, that you may have more to give if you take care of yourself and in the future only let in what you can handle emotionally.

7.  Know that life is a mix of pain and joy.  We all face the true tests of life – death of a loved one, chronic pain or catastrophe – as well as the joy of new love, a baby or a cherished pet.  Appreciate the times you are free from true suffering and know that life will always be a mix of pain and joy.

8.  Know that everything is temporary. When considering pain and suffering, know that it will come to an end.

7. Make amends.  For personal suffering associated with guilt or regret, learn what you need to do to free yourself, which often includes making amends.



Improve Your Mood

How much time do you spend being in a lousy mood? I’m talking about the times when your worries or negative thoughts overtake you; when you’re left feeling upset, pre-occupied, and unable to get on with your day. Be honest with yourself.

You may be surprised at how accustomed you’ve become to being[�] Continue Reading

Keeping Things in Perspective

I have to thank Eliot Spitzer for becoming a helpful guidepost. Our infamous past governor, who resigned after it was revealed that he was involved with high-priced call girls – that, after prosecuting prostitution rings as the former district attorney – has inadvertently become a symbol of resilience for me.

If he could live with his shortcomings and even go on to host a national CNN television program, there is a lesson there for all of us. While I have compassion for Mr. Spitzer and value many of his contributions, I am not[�] Continue Reading

Being an older mom

For a number of years, my mother lied to me about her age. On her presumed 40th birthday, when I was ten, I presented her with a handmade card. It read, You’re only 40! You’re not getting older, you’re getting wiser! Upon opening it, she grimaced and broke down to tell me her big secret – that she was actually 43.  Apparently, years earlier, I had asked how old she was in front of a young attractive friend, and she was so embarrassed to admit it that she subtracted several years.

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Peter Pan is fiction

Life consists of phases. Few of us would chose middle school as our next step in life, but we all go through it. Similarly, everyone grows older. I don’t welcome less elasticity in my skin or decreased stamina, but sure enough, it’s beginning to happen – I am entering a new phase of life, and am contemplating how to best approach it.

I start by looking no further than my own father. Somehow, he has it all worked out. At age 86, he is active, engaged in life, and usually in a good mood. To top it off, he still uses a push mower and travels abroad to teach. At his last party, I remember asking for his secret. “I don’t think about age,” he said, as if he was referring to a parking ticket.

Doesn’t think about it! I just take one look in the mirror or feel the ache in my back after a day of weeding, and I not only think about it, I feel it. So I started wondering whether my father was in some form of denial. One of my social work professors taught that denial can be an effective coping mechanism to allowsus to confront otherwise unfathomable circumstances. She described a young man facing a year-long rehabilitation after a serious accident. His belief that he could fully spring back in a few months allowed him to push through his recovery, while others grew depressed. Even though he was left with some permanent damage, and it ended up taking him almost that full year to walk again, his denial made the process go much more smoothly.

Embrace Your Life ay Any Age and Stop Comparing Yourself to Others 

So am I advocating denial? Not exactly. It’s more about embracing the inevitable stages of life and focusing on what we value, enjoy, and are looking forward to. As my husband likes to say, there will always be people to the left and to the right of us. In other words, some have it worse, others have it better. If you’re always comparing your life to those who have more, you will feel denied. But if you’re thankful for all you have and remember how much harder it could be, you can embrace where you are right now and use your extra energy, instead, to help those to the left of you.