Find yourself suffering through another awful case?
Count your blessings.
Suffering seems to be all the rage. Doctors, deep thinkers and defense attorneys alike are touting its potential benefits. Even Oprah is on board.
Suffering, they say, can sharpen our focus and strengthen our character. It can teach us patience and humility. It can open our minds to new possibilities.
Of course this is not new thinking. Far from it. For centuries, mystics and religious leaders have urged us to accept our trials and tribulations with equanimity. Suffering, they say, is a first principle of life.
But it seems recently a diverse chorus – from the liberal Huffington Post to conservative columnist David Brooks – has been singing the praises of hard times.
“When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant,” writes Brooks. “People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering. [T]he big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.”
Finding Peace Through Fire
Consider the case of Hollye Dexter. Fifteen years ago, a fire destroyed her house and all of her belongings. She and her family barely escaped with their lives. Released from the hospital, they found themselves with no clothes, shelter, food or money.
Naturally, she sunk into a valley of grief and despair. But gradually she emerged. She began to realize that the fire had brought positive changes to her life, which she chronicles in her book Like Wind to Wildfire.
“I learned that I was the luckiest person in the world, because when I was stripped of everything that I thought I was, which was my career, my clothes, my status, my social standing, my credit – I had nothing left but the core of who I was,” she said in an interview. “And I had to find out who that really was. And really, it was a tremendous gift. I didn’t need all this stuff to be happy or to show me who I was.”
No Magic Bullet
There is, however, an important caveat: suffering doesn’t necessarily make us better. Sometimes all it does is make us bitter.
As Brooks points out: “Just as failure is sometimes just failure … suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible. But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.”
Value of Suffering Project
To better understand suffering and its consequences, a team of philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and clinicians have launched “The Value of Suffering Project.”
They are taking a clinical approach to the study of suffering by conducting workshops, conferences and suffering surveys. They have also rolled out the Suffering Blog.
“Contrary to the traditional idea of suffering as an impediment to reason, we will investigate the idea that, in fact, suffering has an important role to play in supporting and assisting rational activity. [W]e will ask: How does suffering bear on attention, memory, deliberation, problem-solving, and social cooperation? What, in sum, is its place in our rational lives?”
Suffering With a Smile
Ours is a culture that exalts happiness. We spend tons of money searching for it. We read self-help books – and eat, drink and self-medicate – to try and get more of it.
But maybe that is all wrong. Life is contrast, after all. Without valleys there are no peaks. Without darkness, no light.
And sometimes suffering – whether mental, physical or professional – can be a pathway to transcendence. Old assumptions disappear. We see ourselves in a whole new way.
We realize we are not the masters of the universe but servants to a greater cause. We are not just lawyers cranking out cases.
And perhaps we start to feel a stirring inside to redeem the awful experience we just went through by doing something great.
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 919-619-2441.
- New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/28/us/28beliefs.html?_r=0
- Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/30/value-of-suffering_n_4018582.html
- Value of Suffering Project http://www.valueofsuffering.co.uk/
- New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/opinion/brooks-what-suffering-does.html?ref=davidbrooks