Living With Suffering

“Suffering only hurts because you fear it.
Suffering only hurts because you complain about it.
It pursues you only because you flee from it.
You must not flee,
You must not complain,
You must not fear.

You must love.
Because you know quite well,
Deep within you, that there is
A single magic,
A single power,
A single salvation,
And a single happiness
And that is called loving.

Well then, love your suffering.
Do not resist it,
Do not flee from it.

Taste how sweet it is in its essence,
Give yourself to it,
Do not meet it with aversion.

It is only aversion that hurts,
Nothing else.”

Recently I came across this quote by Hermann Karl Hesse 2 July 1877 – 9 August 1962) who was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. His best-known works include DemianSteppenwolfSiddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game, each of which explores an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature”. (Thank you Wipipedia, I only knew about Siddhartha!)

I definitely think we cause more suffering by trying to prevent it, when it is an inevitable part of human life, perhaps all earthly life suffers.  It appears that way in time.  But if suffering if a natural part of life then it must be of God… It is upsetting to think of God causing and/or even allowing the suffering as some believe God does; but it is VERY important to know that God IS IN IT WITH US!  There are so many ways to know God while we are in this life.  For me- God made them all holy and sacred by coming to us in a human body- Jesus, who I believe to have been vulnerable to the full spectrum of gifts and challenges we humans are, and in a very brutal time in history.  But if we reframe suffering as a unique and holy way of knowing God, like none other, then it elevates the experiences we desperately hope to avoid; and can potentially turn us on ourselves when the experiences linked to suffering in fact appear unavoidable after all. 

Dr. Viktor Frankl teaches us that when we can find meaning in anything in life it will reduce the suffering, and keep our spirits nourished and vital.  And this coming from a Holocaust survivor, perhaps one of human life’s most credible voices on surviving and living with suffering.

Our Buddhist brothers and sisters, invite us to lean into those tender, painful places, unafraid that we will fall through into an unrecoverable oblivion; but, rather, gently holding the possibility that we will fall away and free, untethered by the fear and judgment that would threaten to tie us endlessly and inextricably to suffering.  I believe that for some of us, it is our judgment that something is terribly wrong with us which increases suffering; the story of self-imposed punishment that can arise when suffering comes to us.  That belief that we did something to bring it upon ourselves isn’t just as old as Biblical times, it is ever present in these times as well.  Judgment and fear have followed us in our timeline. But so has the unfailing, loving Presence of God/Spirit/Something More.

This week I have talked with several people who know they are dying, likely within the next few months or by the end of the year perhaps.  They still have 100% of their minds intact.  They fluctuate in and out of wanting everything settled that seems to matter materially and relationally with those will remain on this side of life, and with pouring more and more attention into their relationship with ALL THAT IS, with God as they know God.  These people have varying backgrounds, spiritually speaking; but they share a similar “workplace”, i.e., Earth from a human body.  They are differently resourced by their loved ones and religious traditions, but they alone in their depths will be meeting God in the leaving of this life. 

Interestingly, though much suffering is brought to us through our physical body- that is precisely what we will leave behind.  Perhaps there is a sort of “kicking out of the nest” that happens.  Although with all its problems, vulnerabilities and limitations, many of us would not associate the body with a nest of safety and nourishing we see baby birds receiving.  But our bodies are a way through which we receive the heights of joy and pleasure, and a way we can be thrust into an isolating tunnel of pain at times. 

The gift may be that joy and suffering of the deepest most permanent kind aren’t in the parts of us which always had an expiration/use by date- our physical selves.  The best of us was never limited to this  timeline, only here on this Earthly assignment temporarily . So it is perhaps in times when we are being pushed out of the familiar physical life, while we are on Earth still, that we meet more and more often, and more and more deeply with the Self that knows, recognizes and remembers Godself- ever present, on all sides of life equally. 

Suffering may have its own meaning and purpose- to direct or invite us to other, less conscious and limited layers of ourselves.  What may seem like an escape into magical thinking that can be associated with highly religious and spiritual practitioners, could actually result in a clarity, saliency and expansion of the life that exists throughout time and space joining all that is, while still ALSO existing in the apparent confines of this body.

We must also address the nonphysical- emotional and existential- suffering we face as humans; for much of which there are no effective medications or techniques, apart from love and space holding.  The suffering of emotion, that comes from loss, particularly that of a loved one, also has a way of pushing us into the beyond, from this front row seat of the three-dimensional earthly life.  If we are to survive, and even thrive in a life that has been stripped of its learned way of being in the world, connected with another heart that is intact, including all its parts, which come from of our loved ones, we must explore the idea that we are still made to live and love with them- but differently

In a recent memorial service over which I presided we began by acknowledging that sharing the intimate memories and stories of our dead loved one, is an act, both communal and personal, of learning to love that person differently.  Their death may feel like a call to our own; as some people share so much of our hearts that is seems impossible that they should beat without that person’s heart continuing to beat alongside it.  But, there again, the best parts of us are not limited to the beating of a human heart or the emotional range of life on earth.  We are all living equally in this earthly realm, and held and infused by the life God gave us of everlasting, unlimited union.  This Divine Union exists on all planes of being.  Very importantly, this union exists simultaneously across aspects of life, embodied and spiritual- connecting us always with Love; the love of God, as well as those with whom we have shared love in this Earthly life.

Pain is never without purpose or end.  We can do only what we can to prevent and treat it.  We can be aware of that which we may be bringing on or increasing in our lives through neglect to our inner or outer physical selves. 

Are we isolating- centering the emotional pain within, where it can concentrate and systemically poison us with unremitting grief?  Can we open to expressing ourselves through the creative process, or to others and God in prayer and sharing, releasing some of the crushing pressure of carrying it alone and  unspoken? 

Are we caring for our physical bodies the best we are able- with nourishing foods, safe enjoyable movement, deep breaths, as much sleep as we are able to get and need, activities that bring us joy and connection, and moments of pleasure and laughter?

The fact is- there are very few things we can do to prevent pain and suffering from being a part of our lives.  So when we encounter a circumstance of choice over which we actually do have some control- discern its value and implications, and choose well. 

Live then, knowing that you did your part, and that whatever pain and suffering are in your life unavoidably so- when the initial shock and reflexive desire to flee, or shut down, or be irretrievable angry and hurt may be able to loosen their hold on you, you may find another part of yourself you never knew was there.  You may find another piece of the mystery of the God who has always been there in you, with you, and waiting for you wherever life and death eventually lead you next.  And when you travel to those places and spaces, whether while still in this body or transitioning to the other side of earthly life, perhaps you will have a knowing that you are accompanied by all those who have also found this to be true- in Spirit.  And in living with your suffering, moving into a reliance and deeper connection with Something More than the pain, you are also connecting with the loving Presence of God and the fellowship of those who live now only in Spirit.

And just when I worry about sounding too saccharin, I remember the ways I have learned this kind of limitless connectedness is possible- through my own healing through trauma this last couple of years; through loved ones; and years of privileged personal story sharing in my work with massage clients and as a healthcare chaplain.  In addition to Viktor Frankl’s testimony of the entire field of logotherapy, we must always include my favorite “chaplain” quote by Helen Keller-

“Although the world is full of suffering, It is also full of the Overcoming of it.”

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