My tenth grade social studies teacher, Myrna Massey had a favorite expression: Suffer! She spat it out with a touch of humor but without a hint of sympathy whenever we complained about an assignment or exam. I loved this woman; she was quick-witted, brilliant, demanding, and took no prisoners. She showed her favoritism by debating any student who asked a challenging question. She was wonderful. With no illusions she communicated that we had to move beyond our self-centered concerns and experience whatever suffering might be entailed in our progress toward excellence.
After a few years Myra Massey quit teaching and went into law. I once met her quite by accident in an elevator in the Parker House in Boston. She was looked well and happy to have made the change. Last year she died of Alzheimer’s disease. How ironic that this woman who used to enjoy telling us to suffer would one day endure a terrible suffering of her own.
There are many kinds of suffering, with different results, depending upon how we address it and what long-term affect it has on our lives. For some of us like myself daily inconveniences cause suffering, especially when situations are needlessly complicated or unjust. When this happens to me usually there is underlying belief or unresolved feeling or memory floating around my head that the inconvenience has triggered. I often ignore the cause and try to deal with the symptom…not very effective in the long run.
Suffering is always uncomfortable and can really hurt. A “broken heart” resulting grief and loss has been identified as an actual physiological condition, from which some people die. As much as I hate to suffer, I have to listen to the message it is trying to convey to me. I can use it to discover my truest self, a value I need to honor, or the actual strength of my convictions.
People like me with high sensitivity sometimes suffer just getting out of bed in the morning, having to face another overly stimulating and complex day in the modern world. Using the internet can cause suffering because I’m a three-dimensional kind of guy; I like the immediacy and sensory quality of being with real people in real conversation and don’t appreciate how everything fades out to two dimensions on the computer screen. Thus we sensitive types have atypical emotional landscapes and can often be misunderstood. We need to develop stronger boundaries in order to work more effectively in the real world.
I grew up in a household where we had enough of everything to enjoy a decent life so I can’t say I suffered materially. Extra frills were scarce and we usually had to wait our turn to receive them, or save our allowance over time. My parents’ frugality taught me a lot about managing life effectively and reducing our “carbon footprint.” Doing with less is a fun challenge that helps me to detach from “stuff.”
Where I did suffer a lot needlessly was in relating to my parents’ background and the stories of their lives. Children of very poor immigrants from Italy, they had a full dose of struggles that left lasting scars. I picked up on these wounds, which activated my free-flowing and finely-tuned empathy.
Both of my parents had lost their mothers before the age of 10. Both had been alienated from their fathers. Both had difficult relationships with some of their siblings. Both left school at fourteen to go to work full time during the Great Depression. Both had a cadre of close friends whom they would retain for nearly all their lives.
My curiosity often prompted them to tell their stories. Underneath the words I felt the pain and saw the sorrow in their eyes. I also felt the safety and love they had whenever they spoke of their friends and close family. I think that’s why I value my friendships so highly and feel so disappointed when they sometimes disappear.
I doubt my parents knew how much I was reading between the emotional lines of their stories. I sensed they needed me to help them. I ended up feeling guilty that I hadn’t quite made their lives better. My need to make them happy and to receive their validation and love motivated many of my efforts at being a good son and achieving as much as I could in school, in the garden, at hobbies, and in my career choices. This was probably typical of most kids, but ultimately not healthy. Even today, long after their deaths, I think wistfully about their life-struggles. It is strange how suffering has a life of its own.
I’ve been learning to create stronger boundaries and let memories of suffering flow over and through me without stopping off too long to create additional pain. I’ve discovered that even needless suffering can be transformed by intention and determination, the “making lemons into lemonade” concept. I realize that suffering has made me a strong man who knows his own mind and has a powerful life-purpose. It’s okay as long as I don’t allow suffering to push me into “victim-mode”, which only causes more needless suffering.
What are your stories of suffering? How have you come to appreciate suffering in your life as an opportunity for healing and growth? When does suffering push you into “victim-mode” and make your life unmanageable? Share with your fellow readers and share this blog with others who may be struggling.
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