Last month’s article, Reflections on Suffering, took a broad view of suffering and my observations of those who suffer in life. With this article, I want to expand on ways of dealing with suffering and give my suggestions on how to survive painful and difficult periods in our lives—whether physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, or a combination of the above.
Historically, suffering has been viewed through many different lenses. There are those who feel that suffering in this life will be rewarded in the next. Others feel suffering is a form of divine retribution, visited upon us for bad deeds. Then there are those who believe that suffering is just a normal part of life, often “undeserved.” Did Job do anything, for example, to deserve God’s wrath?
One thing suffering does typically cause is an examination of our lives. When we suffer, we tend to want to answer the question: why? In my opinion, trying to figure out the “why” of our suffering is just a way of wishing to pinpoint specific causes and find solutions to end our suffering.
Sometimes that can be fairly simple. Let’s say someone is suffering from acid reflux. In its simplest form, symptoms can be eliminated or lessened through dietary changes, herbs, and a change of sleeping position. The person will feel better, but chances are that if they go back to their old habits, the symptoms will return. Thus, we do have some control over some forms of suffering. Sometimes physical problems can’t be reversed, or we didn’t do anything to cause them, like high cholesterol in some people. But often, we can take action and make changes.
When it comes to emotional suffering, the same behavior and solutions may apply in part. We may be unhappy professionally or in our primary relationships. With the help of a competent psychotherapist or counselor, we can examine these things in order to determine the causes of our suffering. We can also come up with solutions ourselves, though this is not always easy and may initially create more anxiety. For example, we can go back to school and change careers, look for another job, leave a toxic relationship, or work to improve it. Many forms of emotional suffering lend themselves to solutions that require effort and time. The gain is that suffering can be either eliminated or reduced.
For other kinds of emotional suffering, like depression or anxiety, other factors come into play. These include genetic predisposition, early childhood experiences, and lack of a strong support system, to name a few. This doesn’t mean that we are doomed to suffer for the rest of our lives. It does mean that we must be vigilant to the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety and take steps to manage these conditions, whether through counseling, medication, or a combination of the two. Having a healthy lifestyle and developing a good support system on a personal and spiritual level will also help.
This brings me to what I consider one of the most important tools for surviving suffering of all sorts: having a strong spiritual support system. By this, I don’t mean asking the God of our understanding to send us information about why we’re suffering, but rather asking for help enduring it. One of the most difficult aspects of suffering is feeling like we’re alone with it—that there’s no one who understands it, identifies with it, or can make it any less awful.
When we suffer, we feel abandoned and lonely. There is no need to feel that way. With a strong faith in the caring presence of a power greater than ourselves, we increase our capacity to endure the hard parts of life. We can view our lives as a whole, not just in these moments of difficulty. We can recall and be grateful for the good times. We can accept that it is all part of the process and experience of being human.
Does suffering ennoble us? Probably not. But it does remind us of the need to be grateful for the joy in our lives.
© Copyright 2011 by Kalila Borghini, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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