“It’s not suffering that leads to hopelessness. It’s suffering you think you can’t control.”
-Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Can we control suffering? It’s a shocking question with perhaps no less a shocking answer: yes and no. If we delve into the psychology and spirituality of suffering, we discover the slippery slope of moving from pain to hopelessness.
First, let’s clarify the premise of the article by explaining that pain and suffering, while related, are actually two entirely separate existential problems. Pain is what happens to us, which we cannot control: a 6-year-old’s skinned knee, a teenager girl’s broken heart, a necessary corrective surgery for a burn victim. Pain is what we experience.
Suffering, however, is our response to pain. What do I think (cognitive); how do I feel (emotive); what do I do (behavioral)? These are three components to how we react when pain – which we cannot control – befalls us in various forms. Suffering, to a large degree, we can control. This means we can control how we respond to life’s misfortunes, tragedies, and losses.
When we move from a place of hope to hopelessness, a series of internal events must occur before we land in despair. The way we respond to pain nearly always begins with an initial thought: “I’m tired of my boss yelling at me all the time in front of my coworkers. It’s humiliating.” Or “I wish I didn’t have so many medical problems. It’s exhausting going to the doctor.”
The cognitive aspect of our reaction is based largely upon our worldview, too: do we believe that suffering is pointless or that it can be used for a greater, even if mysterious, purpose? That will lead to the thoughts of our pain – either eschewing or embracing. Most of us, of course, do not naturally gravitate toward embracing the cross, though it most certainly is the goal of every devout Christian. Instead, we learn to grow from wincing at the thought of inevitable pain to facing its reality to willingly entering into it.
After our initial thoughts, which may be fairly benign or even mostly unconscious, we move to the emotive stage, or how we feel in response to pain. Pain caused by a physical injury is much clearer to understand that emotional pain resulting from loneliness, betrayal, a broken heart, or ostracism. Many of us do not have an extensive emotional vocabulary, so we may limit our expression of perceived “negative” feelings to anger or sadness.
If we make an effort to enter into prayer and bring our pain to God, we can examine more honestly our response to it. If we initially relate our boss yelling at us in front of others to the feeling of anger, we may be missing the deeper, underlying feeling of shame. Likewise, if we compare the chronic burden of managing multiple medical issues with feeling sad, we may be ignoring the predominant emotion of overwhelm and loneliness.
More often than not, in our saccharine culture that promotes the prosperity gospel and power of positive thinking, anger is the most acceptable, if not undesirable, emotion to express whenever pain is present. Yet anger is also a blanket for more painful feelings that we seldom believe we have permission to express: guilt, shame, fear, isolation, confusion, frustration, etc.
If we recognize that our external response of anger is really a cover for feeling the vulnerability of shame, we can take that to prayer and allow God to gently heal us of that wound. The wounds of shame very well may stem from decades prior to the triggering pain, but we cannot see this clearly without first bringing the real emotion and the deeper problem to prayer. Many times we will be led to further investigate our woundedness through spiritual direction, counseling, and the sacraments of healing: Reconciliation and reception of the Holy Eucharist.
Finally, if we do not confront the root of our true feelings, we may then be led to a sense of losing control over our lives or some aspect of our lives. The subsequent hopelessness might lead us to inaction in the face of crisis or calamity, which feeds the sense that “nothing can be done” but sit and wait, agonize and stew in our doom.
This is not to say that there are not, at times, psychological diagnoses that complicate our experience of pain and response to suffering. Mood disorders can and do often muddy sharp, coherent thoughts or even override those rational thoughts with a prevailing and paralyzing fear or sadness.
Psychological disorders notwithstanding, we can still glean some fragment of understanding how our thinking leads to feeling, which ultimately leads to doing – or not doing (behavioral response).
This behavior is really the crux of how we respond to pain we cannot control. It’s how we choose to suffer that makes all the difference in our experience of taking up the cross daily to follow Jesus. Consider the sagacious wisdom from Fr. Richard F. Clarke in his booklet Patience: Meditations for a Month; he tells us that “suffering is…the remedy for the disease of sin, the kindly knife that hurts but cures.”
It is possible, then, to willingly choose to suffer despite or in spite of intense feelings of agony and deep-seated sorrow. If we tether it to the wounds of Jesus, we know we have handed Him a most precious treasure of consolation, which is our misery. That is when suffering truly becomes, paradoxically, transformative and most powerful. It is when we realize the necessity of suffering because of our personal sins, as well as primarily due to Original Sin. It is anything from a blemish to a gaping laceration of the heart that actually heals us when we impart it to God.
Fr. Clarke further encourages us with the promise that “suffering is payment for joy to come.” If this is true, every time we are afflicted with some interior or exterior problem, we can move beyond our thoughts of irritation and agitation, beyond our feelings of hopelessness and loss of control, to a place where we see our suffering as an opportunity of reparation for our sins and those of the world. We see our suffering as a means of consoling the heart of Jesus. We see our suffering as a form of prayer for the sake of others who suffer still more than we. And that is ultimately the power of the Cross: to not necessarily understand its mystery but to stand in awe of its majesty; not to feel happiness at its foot, but to live its message with every fiber and facet of the moments we’ve been given.
That’s the joy in suffering – to see beyond the horizon of here and now, to await the promise of what is to come in our eternal reward. It’s the only point in life when we might step away from merely seeing and appreciating the “present moment” and instead riding on the wings of hope, which carries us to the joy that is yet to come.
It seems that’s what will lead us away from hopelessness in suffering: the reminder not of what anguish we are experiencing now, but instead of the ecstasy of Heaven.