Saturday, 5 July 2014

Learning to embrace suffering

I’ve always been pretty idealistic about life; I’ve sought out the good things; the things that bring happiness, fun and fulfilment (well, doesn’t everyone?). When it came to trouble or pain I would run a million miles away, to the point where if there was any risk of suffering I would steer clear, no matter how good the potential outcome. I became trapped by my own fear of pain and heartache and essentially I couldn’t face reality. I wanted life to be perfect. I walked around like a little kid in the face of pain, sulking that life was not fair. But a funny thing happens when you run away from pain; you not only avoid your own suffering but other people’s too.

Now, you may think that I’m hardly apt to speak about suffering, but I would tell you that I am perfectly knowledgeable about such a subject because I am, in fact, human. Admittedly my suffering may dim in comparison to someone who’s fighting cancer or dealing with horrendous loss, but I think that my human condition gives me permission to write about suffering.  I’ve had to face up to emotional as well as physical pain, which has been, quite frankly, shit. I don’t want to write about things that are painful, or disappointing, or less than perfect. But I’m human. So I write.

And I guess that’s one of the hardest things about pain, is that people judge you in your darkest moments, telling you that you should be able to handle this because so-and-so did, or that you should count yourself lucky that it’s not any worse. And right in an instant, those words are like a punch where you’re already bleeding. We’ve turned sceptical of people’s pain, turning a blind eye to it because it means we have to carry some of it ourselves. Deep down we’re all running away from suffering.

Recently I have had a pretty tough time. I’m currently sat in pain writing this, and for the last two weeks my husband has had to help dress me, aid me on the toilet and get me in and out of bed. The worst of it though is that I’m still unable to give my son a cuddle. It’s killing me. No, I’m not dying, but I have experienced suffering.  And no doubt you have too, because no one is exempt.

It all sounds pretty dire doesn’t it, facing all this doom and gloom? Yet in the midst of suffering I have become more alive than I have ever been. We have a choice, see, to run from suffering: to be defeated by it, or to embrace it: to let it shape us. Throughout times of suffering I have become aware of true friendship, of the depths of love of someone willing to hold you while you pee, of someone squeezing your hand when they can’t take the pain away, of someone hugging you when they have nothing to say. And somehow there is a something amazing about the hugs from those who have truly allowed suffering to shape and humble them, because they don’t come at you with how much more they’ve suffered than you, they just hold out their hand to you – really good people who have really suffered, and they’re not even bitter about it. They simply reach out to you and help to carry your pain too.

And so I am trying not to let suffering define me, but let it shape me. I’m determined not to run from it, but to embrace it – embracing others who suffer and not trying to give them solutions or tell them how much harder I’ve had it. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet – you know me, I tend to wallow in my own self-pity, but  I have come out the other side thinking that life is a pretty good place to be and I’m glad to still be here.  The pain has given me a greater understanding of happiness. I’m not exempt from suffering, but I’ve experienced horrendous pain and known peace, extreme frustration and known comfort. The fear of pain is often worse than it actually is. I now have deeper relationships and a greater understanding of humanity and I want to be able to reach out my hand to pain without judgement, not hide it away in fear.

And if you’re reading this and you’re in the midst of suffering, whether you’re close to death or you’ve simply got a headache, your pain is valid. Your suffering counts. But don’t let it define you, let it shape you so that you too can help to ease the weight of suffering and experience freedom in spite of it all.

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.”Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

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