What Value, Suffering?

Pico Iyer had a fascinating piece in The Sunday Times yesterday about suffering, and how beneficial it is. Now, I've suffered through a lot of things --childhood abuse, infertility, breast cancer, the loss of a close friend from cancer -- and I can't say I've enjoyed any of it.

But that's not the point, apparently.  It seems, as Iyer writes, "Suffering is the first rule of life, and insofar as some of it arises from our own wrongheadedness — our cherishing of self — we have the cure for it within. Thus in certain cases, suffering may be an effect, as well as a cause, of taking ourselves too seriously."

Who wouldn't take the death of a child, or a divorce, or even separation from a job, seriously?  Iyer quotes a Zen-trained painter who believed "You should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing."

Say what?  Iyer admits that no one likes suffering. But, "To live, as Nietzsche (and Roberta Flack) had it, is to suffer; to survive is to make sense of the suffering."

And, let's face it, there is some suffering that no one can recover from -- like the mom whose parents and three beautiful young daughters died in a house fire in Stamford on, of all days, so cruelly, Christmas, two years ago.

Whose life hasn't been touched by tragedy, by suffering?  And though I'm sick to death of the people who've told me that God doesn't give us more than we can bear (I can point to about three people who he has), there is a certain clarity about it, as Iyer notes.

Iyer quotes a poet who lost three of his four children to very early deaths (and the final child was born afte he died), who still somehow found beauty in his suffering.

Some of us, and I include myself in this, can see loss as opportunity.  When I continued to miscarry, trying to get pregnant, I finally thought that maybe there was a better way, maybe we needed more help.  And so, my son was born.  But those were some of the darkest days of my life, even worse than when I was diagnosed with cancer.  No one then could have convinced me that my suffering would lead to good.  My son is now 12.  I can't remember a time without him, though I'd lived two-thirds of my life by the time I gave birth to him, but those days still remain with me in the back of my mind, their dark sadness never far.

Did I benefit from this?  It's hard to say.  I would have a 15-year-old and a 14-year-old if those babies had lived.  But I have Phillip, and sometimes I do see that my suffering through those terrible years helped lead me to him.

"Suffering is reality, even if unhappiness need not be our response to it," Iyer quotes the poet, Kobayashi Issa, again.  How can unhappiness not be our response to it?  Iyer gives as an answer the people who lived through the tsunami in Japan two years ago, who picked up their lives and kept going.  Not for them was standing around feeling sorry for themselves.

Wise men in every tradition tell us that suffering brings clarity, illumination, Iyer writes, and I guess, looking back, it does.  Maybe I wasn't meant to have children at a younger age.  Maybe all of life is one loss after another, the beautiful warm sunny days giving way to crisp, clear fall; a dear friend moving away; the death, two years ago for me, of a parent.  Life moves on.

But I do think suffering enriches our lives.  No one would choose it, me included.  But it makes us wiser, fuller somehow.  I would be a different person without all the travail in my life.  Maybe a better person, maybe not.  But the one thing I can say for it is that it has made me who I am.  And most days I'm grateful for that.


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