Nobody told me—or maybe I failed to hear—that one of the hardest things about being a parent would be watching my children suffer.
Their scrapes and bruises—both physical and emotional—break my heart. They always will. But thankfully my children’s injuries and disappointments no longer lead me to believe that I’m a failure as a parent.
Somewhere along the way I realized that suffering happens. To everybody. Suffering is a brute fact of human existence. So, one of our crucial spiritual challenges is to learn how to live with suffering.
The psychologist Angela Duckworth stressed the importance of teaching the virtue of grit. That’s her phrase for passionate persistence. Nietzsche famously encouraged resilience by saying that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
These approaches are not wrongheaded. But they don’t tell the whole story. Current research on trauma reminds us that what doesn’t kill us can actually debilitate us. Consider what Bessel van der Kolk says in his bestseller The Body Keeps the Score:
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
The path to health and well-being involves getting our heart and head around the trauma stored in our bodies. We have to learn to tell a new narrative about past traumatizing events and our present selves.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (d. 135 AD) anticipated contemporary approaches in phrases like this: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Another Stoic, Seneca (d. 65AD), struggled with asthma from an early age. Eventually he contracted what many believe to have been tuberculosis. His condition had become unbearable, so he began contemplating suicide.
He explained to a friend what had ultimately led him to persevere. Seneca thought about the pain that his father would experience if he should take his own life. And so he chose to keep living out of love for his father.
In his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, the concentration camp survivor and psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl described the horrific conditions of camp life. He noted that those prisoners who thrived psychologically under these circumstances were precisely the ones who sought to make life better for their fellow inmates.
What I gather from these and many other voices is that we can become the victim of suffering. Our lives can be distorted and diminished by what happens to us. Or, our circumstances—perhaps even the most trying and painful and chronic ones—can be for us the occasion for choosing to become our true selves.
Jesus teaches us that suffering loses its power over us when we know who we are: why we’re here in the first place.
He once asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” After they told him, he got more personal. “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-38)
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” In other words, “You are the one who will set things right.” As it turns out, Peter was correct. But he wasn’t prepared for how Jesus would set things right and what that would mean about being his true self.
Jesus explained that he would suffer and die and be raised. That is precisely how Jesus sets things right.
You see, Jesus spent his entire ministry modeling, teaching and preaching that we’re here to love. No matter what. Love God. Love neighbor. Love is the “why” of Jesus’ life. And to follow him means to chose love as the “why” of our lives.
Jesus put it this way: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
The startling thing about taking love as our “why” is that it draws us into a life that suffering can never finally distort or destroy. When we love, our lives are braided into the divine life. We begin to experience eternal life.
We will all suffer. We have no choice about that.
We can love. Or not. The choice is ours.