Monday Musings… Putting Suffering in Perspective

What is suffering? According to Webster’s 1913 definition, suffering is: the bearing of pain, inconvenience, or loss; pain endured; distress, loss, or injury incurred; as sufferings by pain or sorrow; sufferings by want or wrongs.

That’s a pretty inclusive definition of all kinds of suffering. But what I notice is that it’s very much focused on the person’s perception. Notice the words ‘bear’, and ‘endure’. It’s something “I” must cope with. Suffering is a personal battle.

Note in the second part of the definition, that suffering is also a reaction or response to something that is happening to you: you may feel torment, grief, or physical or moral harm. This pain in suffering can therefore be ongoing and last well past the initial event that sparked the suffering.

Often people are asked: on a scale of 1 to 10, what level of pain are you experiencing, as if by quantifying it, it signals to those around you just how significant your suffering is. It’s the depth of the pain or sorrow that, as humans, is the measuring stick for how you are impacted by what the world throws at you.

Next, what I found interesting, in this 100-year-old plus definition, was “suffering by want or wrongs”. We often talk to children about the difference between wants and needs, and here, in this definition, suffering is synonymous with not getting what you want. I thought this was a 21st century plight, with its entitled mindset, but I had to conclude that this “suffering for want” is not only a millennial or Gen Z phenomenon. It exists, sadly, across the lifespan, and apparently, over the centuries.

And lastly, this definition includes suffering for wrongs – those perceived slights; when you should have got what you deserved; when you’ve been offended or excluded; or when you’ve fallen victim to some grievous action. Justice was not served, when you thought it should have. This is very much a current pre-occupation. It’s pretty hard to not offend someone with your personal views and conversely it can be hard at times to not take tings personally.

So, are you suffering today?

To put suffering in perspective, I want to share with you an experience I had this week in a course I teach on death and dying. I had arranged to have a guest speaker come and talk about the historical aspects of death through their experience during the Holocaust.

George was born in Austria, in 1938, and as he told his story, he said he never saw himself as a survivor because he had never spent time in a concentration camp; but he came to realize that he had inherited his family’s suffering, as all of their lives had been drastically changed because of the events of the Holocaust.

As George explained, the Holocaust happened because of the evil that instigated the dehumanization of the Jews. Jewish people were stripped of their identification as humans by removal of their clothing, possessions, and hair. Essentially, they were worth nothing, unless their labour could help sustain the camps, but then that could be deemed inessential in a split-second decision. Jews were dispensable, expendable. To further extinguish their humanness, their names were carefully recorded by the Nazis and replaced with a number that was tattooed on their arms and labelled on their prison garb. It was a waiting game that offered little hope, for the aim of The Final Solution was to eliminate each and every Jew in the countries under Nazi rule.

The loss of identity, threat of death, or loss of life however, was not the greatest suffering according to George. It was the separation of family and not knowing what happened to them. When George’s father was able to escape and come to the United States, he left behind his wife and 2 small children, as well as his parents. Eventually, George and his mother and sister would make it to America, but despite repeated efforts, George’s grandparents could not be located. This was the burden that George’s father bore for the rest of his life. The suffering came not just from loss, from wanting, or from wrongs, but from having absolutely no control over the situation; no ability to protect the life of another. They saw firsthand how evil overpowered good, and they were helpless to change that.

Suffering cannot be accurately defined in my opinion. It is difficult to quantify and we should not compare suffering. It is an individual experience. We talk about pain tolerance as if it’s a measure of a person’s mental strength, bragging rights as to who has gone through the most, and survived. But I think that’s a false way of viewing suffering, especially when you listen to the words of people like George.

In all the times I’ve heard a Holocaust survivor speak, not one of them talked about the ‘good fortune’ that they were alive. No, each one spoke with humility, tinged with sorrow, for those who did not make it. Their grief was not for what happened to them, but what happened to others. Their want was not for themselves, but for a restoration of sanity and goodness in a world so propelled by evil creating the madness of mass destruction. They were willing to bear the pain, distress, and injury, if only they could find hope and meaning in their suffering state. And that is why George tells his story – his purpose is to ensure that evil does not gain a foot hold again.

As George said: “We are capable of so much good, but also so much hatred.” This should not be a balanced equation – we need to focus on the good we can do in this world.

So, wherever you are, and whatever suffering you may be going through, put it in perspective. Trying to gain control when it seems impossible will make it difficult to bear. But as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote: “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds its meaning.”

We may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor 1:4)

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