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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

On Suffering

One of my major roles as a therapist is to help people develop a theology of suffering. People generally do not schedule sessions with a counselor when they are happy (although that would be a novel and welcome experience!) but rather when they are experiencing a level of pain that has exceeded their capacity to cope with their existing resources. A necessary and crucial first step in the triage of crisis is to create a safe space for people to share their story; to be seen, heard and held in their distress, to be validated in the significance of their suffering without comparing it to that of another, or dismissing it with a trite phrase or superficial words of encouragement that may serve only to drive the knife of pain deeper into the soul.

The dictionary defines suffering as “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.” The way we experience suffering, however, has much more to do with the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world than the actual details of our situation. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are, or rather where we are in the path of our own growth and development (Richard Rohr).

In her book Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), Kate Bowler talks about the three types of responses she received when people found out she had a rare and serious form of cancer: the Minimizers, who try to help her look on the bright side (Heaven is better than earth!), the Teachers, who look for the lesson in the suffering (You are developing character!), and the Solutions people, who either have the cure (Juicing! Acupuncture! Prayer!) or the answer (Keep Smiling! Your attitude determines your destiny!) She writes, “there is a cruelty in the logic of the perfectly certain.” Because when you are suffering, nothing feels certain. The people who are most certain they have the answer are usually the ones who have not experienced the excruciating losses that drive us to our knees, the ones we can’t understand or explain or accept because they are baffling, inexplicable and unacceptable, the ones that sear our souls and pierce our hearts and leave us unable to breathe, or sometimes, even to cry.

After hearing the story and validating the pain, I attempt to offer comfort, which is surprisingly difficult for many people to receive. In our Western culture in particular, we see needing or wanting support or comfort as a weakness rather than a necessity. We are neurologically wired for connection from birth and not meant to navigate this confusing and often brutal universe without support from others. Many of my clients do not recall ever being comforted by a caregiver in childhood (a fact that leaves me saddened and baffled – how could one not wish to hold and rock a distressed child?) leaving them unable to ask for or receive comfort as adults. We seem to value stoicism and remaining unruffled by things that should make us feel completely ruffled.

Entitlement is a theme in the conversation about suffering. “Why me?” my clients ask. “Why not you?” I want to ask. “Why are you special? Why should you be spared? Sometimes life is just hard.” But I don’t ask. I know my perspective is different. Very different. My parents are holocaust survivors. Not as Jews, but as citizens of a country caught in the cross fire of Hitler’s mad lust for absolute power. My father, Johann, growing up in the Netherlands, my country of birth, was conscripted to build tiger tanks that would be used against his own people. Awash in adolescent hormones of defiance and wild hope at the tender age of 17, he tried to escape and ended up in a German prison, on death row. The guards taunted him with death threats, deprived him of food and water, mocked his patriotism to the Allied cause. But it was not until the end of the war, when the Germans were losing badly and running out of resources to feed their own soldiers, much less their prisoners, that my father began to lose hope. “We moved rocks,” he told me. “In the morning we moved large, heavy rocks to one side of the prison yard. In the afternoon we moved them back.”

“For what?” I asked him. “For nothing,” he answered. He recounted that sometimes his fellow prisoners simply lay down in the yard, knowing they would be shot by the guards for not obeying orders and continuing their meaningless task. Then I understood. There was no purpose to moving the rocks. The stones were not going to be used to build a wall or barricade or other structure. It was the guards’ way of maintaining their power and inflicting humiliation on their captives. There was no point. That, it turns out, is our greatest fear. That there is ultimately no point to our suffering. That it is meaningless. Hopelessness and despair come quickly on the heels of this conclusion. We want to be assured that if we are in pain, it is going to matter. We want to know that there is meaning to our suffering, that it will serve some higher purpose.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” (Rumi) My experience is that people who have suffered greatly also have a greater capacity for love and compassion, both for themselves and others. Is that sufficient reason to justify suffering? So we can be more compassionate? So we can understand and meet others in their pain? In Carly Simon’s song Coming Around Again, she sings, “there’s more room in a broken heart.” As it turns out, there is more room for love and light, but for bitterness and darkness as well.

“Before we can see properly we must first shed our tears to clear the way.” (ancient tribal proverb) Suffering typically involves a measure of grief over what has been lost, whether that involves people, pets, jobs, innocence, life, limbs, mobility, mental capacity or security. Typically, suffering involves the realization the we are vulnerable to harm, that people or circumstances or our own bodies can betray us and let us down. We can no longer operate in the illusory bubble that bad things happen to other people, people who didn’t plan or prepare or protect or pray properly. People who are not like us. Because now we are one of those people.

We planned, prepared, protected and prayed but it happened anyway.We lost the pregnancy, or the marriage, or the race, or the job, or the house, or the battle with cancer. Along the way, we may have lost our confidence, self worth, friends, partner, child, money, housing, stability, faith or sense of purpose. Things don't make sense anymore. Life is not fair. We played by the rules but we didn’t get the prize that was promised to us for following them. We approach things in a contractual manner: I do my part, and then God/business partner/spouse/friend/child/boss/employer/life does the reciprocal part of honoring the deal that I’m sure we made at the beginning, but after I keep my end of the bargain, the other entity does not reciprocate. They go rogue. And I’m left reeling.

We can suffer for what we have done (or not done) or what has been done to us. Often in our hurt we end up hurting others. We withdraw or lash out or misunderstand or withhold. We wrap the mantle of hurt around ourselves, certain no one can understand our pain enough to enter into it. But suffering is universal. We all experience it, albeit on different levels. I don’t know what it is to be a refugee in a Syrian displacement camp. But I know what it means to be powerless, to feel damaged and broken and worthless and unlovable and hopeless and devastated. The circumstances may differ, but the emotions and outcomes are the same. Human beings share the same neurobiology and respond to suffering in the same way. The details matter little. Suffering affects our brains and bodies similarly. No matter our ethnicity, race, religion, socio economic status or education level, we are more alike than different in the way our brain is wired to respond to suffering. Our nervous system is designed to protect us from harm. We try to avoid pain even if the ways we choose to do this end up causing damage to ourselves, and others.

A theology of suffering must involve the capacity to tolerate the ambiguity of not needing to have answers or solutions to our pain. It must involve a willingness to ask difficult questions with no guarantee that there are satisfying answers, or even any answers, this side of heaven. We may suffer for our own choices, or the choices of others. Suffering is inescapable, but despair is not. Connection and compassion are the antidotes to hopelessness. A network of supportive relationships, where we feel seen and known and significant, can help offset the unpredictability of that diagnosis, or death, or loss. We can move towards, instead of away, from others in our pain, and find solidarity in the experience, if not the exact details, of our suffering.

The other question often foremost on client’s minds regarding their trauma is, “Where was God?” They feel abandoned during their time of greatest need, and wonder why God allowed/caused this to happen to them or someone they care about. James Finley notes, “God protects us from nothing but sustains us in everything.” Even the Christ, who embraced and embodied suffering in his lifetime, cried out to his own father on the cross: “Why have you forsaken me?” This question must not be brushed aside with platitudes or seen as a breach of faith. God is not offended with these struggles of the soul. He welcomes a faith that is willing to question and doubt and rage and ask the hard and often unanswerable questions and not settle for easy answers. Since God is everywhere all of the time, the real question becomes, how do we continue to experience His presence when life goes dark?

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2). The torrential waters and flames will come, but how we experience them depends a great deal on our perception and response. We cannot control what comes our way, only what we do with it. Choose kindness and compassion, towards yourself, and others. Learn to embrace the questions instead of demanding the answers. Connection with safe relationships multiplies our joys while dividing our sorrows. Please don't choose to suffer alone.

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