Confronting Pain and Suffering

As a member of many 12 step anonymous groups, confronting pain and suffering are rarely talked about. The concept is not mentioned in the 12 steps. We have some affliction or addiction and we are to turn our lives over to God/Higher Power hoping He will do all the work.

In psychiatric medicine, it is rarely mentioned. We talk about our symptoms and the doctor prescribes some pills, hoping our pain will go away.

We rarely discuss the dimensions about confronting pain and suffering. How sad! They are the essential ingredients for any recovery.

For starters, I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – an anxiety condition that I have had most of my life. I’m reluctant to take pills because of the side effects.  I don’t believe recovery is possible without confronting some pain.

And it’s never easy.

I carry around with me several pages of slogans and refer to them when my OCD is acting up. The most helpful ones are those that stress confronting pain.

We don’t conquer a fear unless we experience it fully. And that involves pain.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

But bearing pain and suffering is not an exclusive property for OCD sufferers. It is the essential ingredient for any emotional wound we want to recover from.

Dr. M. Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist wrote in his best selling book “The Road Less Traveled”, symptoms from many mental illnesses originate from a higher Power/God telling us our human spirit is in need of repair.

I know from personal experience with my OCD, pain is not lessened until I figure out the lesson I am to learn.

Unfortunately we medicate ourselves, running away from pain.

As sadistically as it sounds, we need pain. Only through pain, do we question, learn, grow. Without pain – though it may sound joyous – would eventually dull us. We would become complacent.

Writing in his book “Personhood”, Dr. Leo Buscaglia says “a life without pain would be but part of life, for pain and joy are interrelated, at times dependent one upon the other, in certain circumstances growing one from the other.”

But most pain never lasts forever. People often have to feel worse before they feel better. It has been said that the lowest ebb is the turning point.

The Christian faith has its own take on suffering. Some writers say we must bear our crosses before we can wear the crown. According to Thomas A Kempis in his classic “The Imitation of Christ”: “to enter the Kingdom of God, we have to confront many tribulations.”

Adds A Kempis: “We must live a dying life.” Something old dies to make room for something new.

Our old habits and bad characteristics/flaws often don’t die unless we confront struggles and hardships. When they pass, we obtain values and spiritual characteristics which make us more mature, responsible.

Growth is painful.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

But if pain from mental illnesses, fear, general worries seem too much to bear, it’s even more tragic to confront suffering from heartaches that never seem to end. Death of a child or a love one, Accidents.  Catastrophes inflicted by man or nature. The tragedies so unbearable to humankind.

In his book “Man’s Search For Meaning” Dr. Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, writes “life holds a potential meaning under any condition, even the most miserable ones. If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Without suffering and death, human life can not be complete.”

Dr. Frankl adds:” Everything can be taken from man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

And purpose can make our suffering more bearable.

Dr. Frankl states that those fellow holocaust prisoners who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were more apt to survive.

Nietzsche stated that he who has a “why’ to live for can almost bear any “how.”

And what about those holocaust victims who knew they were going to face death? Frankl writes about them calling them “martyrs, whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that “they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’m troubled by those who say that God allows negative things to happen. It implies that God is in control, allows his creation to be hurt, especially to become severely handicapped but allowed it for a reason. It also takes away man’s free will.

Destroying his creation to make us stronger? Surely, if God were in control and wanted to teach us a lesson, he could “break” us without injuring us permanently.

I have to believe negative things happen even to the surprise of God. Where God comes in is He helps us find meaning, purpose despite the tragedy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Pain and suffering are part of the human experience. We cannot avoid them. We can live in our “safety zone” but we don’t grow or mature. According to Helen Keller: “security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature….Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: “Sorrow makes us wise.” And Nietzsche stated “that which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

Our concern is not to suffer in vain.  In the words of Dostoevsky: “there is one thing that I dread, not to be worthy of my sufferings.”