By Mark E. Smith
Why do we suffer? If you’re like most of humanity, you’ve probably asked that question based on your own pain or in witnessing the pain of others. Even if you’re among the most optimistic, you’ve likely wondered, why does such a cruel aspect of life as suffering exist?
Now, we have to preface this conversation with the fact that not all suffering is equal. Even when some are more adept at enduring suffering than others, we know that not all plights are equal. Although one may be suffering due to, say, a job loss, it can’t be equated with third-degree burns over 90% of one’s body.
Yet, on a more universal scale, we all encounter some sort of suffering at points in our lives, albeit physical, emotional or mental – or all three. With this fact, though, a fundamental question remains: is there a purpose for suffering, and if so, what is it?
Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Colhoun studied individuals who experienced tremendous suffering, from having a serious illness, to experiencing the death of a loved one, to serving in combat, to living as a refugee. Regardless of the causation of suffering, the researchers found striking patterns in the ultimate affect that suffering had on the individuals: “positive life changes.”
Specifically, the researchers discovered that those who suffered experienced personal growth. The individuals discovered strengths and abilities they didn’t know they had; they found deeper meaning in relationships; they took far less for granted than others; and, they had a more philosophical sense of awareness, including greater empathy for others.
Along these lines, other research also shows benefits from suffering, but getting to those benefits isn’t an easy plight. Psychologist, Judith Neal, researched those who’ve suffered to notable degrees, finding a harrowing path that can lead us from suffering to personal growth. Neal, in fact, identified a sort of road map that we commonly follow. In the process of suffering, proposes Neal, we begin in a dark state. Then we enter a phase of trying to find sense in it all. Next, we discover new perspectives and values. It’s at this point that we discover new meaning and purpose in life. The key is not to get stuck in the dark state, but to move through what researchers assert is a natural, instinctive survival model that results in growth.
Anecdotally, based on my career and the population I’m part of due to my having a disability, I’ve witnessed thousands of individual ”suffering” by both medical and empathetic definition. I’ve watched very close friends die slowly from such progressive diseases as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and ALS. Yet, more poignantly, I’ve seen most ultimately thrive in the midst of it all, sharing with me the positive life transformations they’ve gained through suffering. No, not everyone navigates this process – I’ve likewise had friends commit suicide over suffering – and we shouldn’t expect suffering to be rosy or welcome it or seek it out. However, from formal research to my own life experience, I do believe that there is a purpose within suffering: it’s a catalyst for growth. In our darkest times, let us trust in that purpose.