“He learned obedience through the things which he suffered” ~~Hebrews 5:8
I think every day about suffering, some days it is more intently than others, but every day nonetheless. Do you really? Every single day? I can hear you saying. Yes, really, every day, if only for a moment. I write in a journal every morning. Usually it’s only a page, but I write every day. And each day I close my journal with the following prayer: “May I and all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May we walk in the power of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, peace, and love and share these blessings with the world and beyond. Amen.” My Buddhist friends recognize that most of that comes from Buddhist tradition, augmented a little by my own touches. Every day I pray that we all might be free from suffering and the things that cause it.
During Lent I am more keenly aware of suffering, as I think about the suffering and agony Jesus went through just before and during his execution. I think that to be human is to know suffering. I think we all are touched by it at one point or another in one form or another. Suffering takes many forms, some more obvious than others. The question is not if we suffer, it is how we suffer. Not the means by which we are plagued, but how we go through it. We can experience pain—physical, mental, emotional—and pray desperately for it to end, or we can open to it, lean into it, learn from it. I think it ends up being some combination of both.
The question is, then, how can we learn from suffering? After all, if suffer we must, we might as well get something out of it. (What an odd way of thinking about it.) What I mean is that, hidden in the midst of the pain, grief, heartache or other form of suffering, there is usually something to learn, some insight to gain. The Bible says that Jesus learned obedience from the things he suffered. What have you and I learned?
Several years ago, when the bottom fell out of my somewhat orderly life, I was most definitely suffering. I honestly didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the “why me?” phase, but did spend a bit of time confused about what I was going to do next. How could I make sense of what was happening to me. After a few weeks of floundering, the first positive move I made was to volunteer at a local food pantry. You see, I knew that, as bad as things felt, I knew I didn’t have it as bad as others. I had a roof over my head, and support from family and friends. I had reserves I could count on. Volunteering at the food pantry gave me purposeful work and allowed me to serve members of my community. It saved me.
The other important lesson I learned during that time was to be grateful for virtually everything in my life. I was surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. I had people in my life who loved and cared for me. As I told people more than once, I couldn’t throw a rock and not hit something that I was grateful for. I began writing a daily gratitude blog. Even though things hadn’t materially changed in my life, each day I search for and found something I could be grateful for. The blog, “Lessons in Gratitude,” still lives in the blogosphere, and occasionally people still read it. I wrote 1,000 posts over the course of those years, and as my suffering eased and life got a little easier I continued to write.
I learned things I can’t even articulate. Experiencing loss deepened my capacity for compassion and understanding. It also helped me search for and find the good in people, even those with whom I struggled. I am still discovering things I learned during that time of suffering. I still suffer, much less dramatically than I did during my difficult years of loss. I suffer from depression, self doubt, and many other things that plague so many of us on a regular basis, offering me more learning opportunities than I might want. But learn I will, as best I can.
May I and all beings be free from suffering…