Perspectives on Suffering

Why Does Suffering Exist, and How Does our Understanding of Suffering Translate into Our Culture?

The desire to avoid suffering is probably one of the most common of the common denominators that connect all of humanity. Most religions, philosophies, and healing practices offer theories that identify the causes and ways out of suffering.   Even within one tradition, there can be a grab-bag of explanations that sometimes contradict each other. The truth is surely a complex mix, and we use what is most helpful at the time.

Some explanations comfort us but leave us unaccountable. Some challenge us to fight the forces of darkness but engender fear. Some make us wholly responsible, which is both empowering and guilt inducing and has a side effect of making compassion toward others optional.  Then there’s the whole angle of suffering being good for us, leaving us to embrace it and learn from it, but risking that we will become proud of it.

This moving target science takes on even more dimensions when we start attempting to explain suffering in others around us. In our ever-attempt to avoid suffering, we so often give advice like a Trojan horse, wrapped as a gift of compassion, yet containing a seed of judgment that reassures us that we know better than to fall into the same trap. We find ways to explain the suffering of others that release us from our own fears and painful compassion.

Sometimes we just embrace ideas that have an unintended flip side. The idea that we get “blessings” for obedience sounds nice until that same logic suggests that when things are going wrong, those blessings have been withdrawn because of lack of obedience. This can cause people to judge themselves and others rather harshly.

The “Who Dun It” of Suffering

Here is how I catalog all these philosophies of suffering floating around.

GOD (Good News:  Good will come of it.  Bad News: You can pass the blame)

“God’s Test” – God is testing you to see if you’ll stay the course/remain faithful.

“Refiner’s Fire” – God is working on your ego, making you stronger, or teaching you lessons.

“Contrast” – We need bad stuff to clarify that we choose good. It’s set up that way.

“Permissive Will” – God allows bad things to happen to jolt us out of spiritual complacency.

SATAN (Good News: Righteous anger is energizing. Bad News: Fear is draining.)

“Opposition” – You’re probably on the right path if he’s fighting you so hard.

“Evil” – He’s just a trouble maker.

YOURSELF (Good News: You can change it. Bad News: Potentially less compassion for self, others.)

“Karma” – What goes around comes around energetically.

“Lack of Support of Nature”  — You’re not living within the laws of nature.

“Negative Thinking” – Law of Attraction says you brought it on yourself.

“Lack of Wisdom” – Knowledge traditions claim to reduce subjective suffering.

“Unreleased Trauma” – You’re not dealing with your psychological issues.

“Victim Posturing” – You have a bad habit of bringing stuff on yourself.

“Attachment” – If you weren’t attached to it being otherwise, it wouldn’t bother you.

“God’s Punishment” – A tough-love God is teaching you a lesson for something you did.

“God withdrawing blessings” – You’re not living in God’s Will or doing good works.

“Natural Consequences” – Too many cookies, a diabetic makes.

OTHER PEOPLE (Good News: Simple compassion. Bad News: No silver lining or deep purpose to comfort us..)

“Generational Sin” – Grandpa ate too many cookies.

“Fall of Adam” – Some say he didn’t need to fall and we’re still paying for it.

“Other People’s Free Agency” – It wasn’t in God’s plan that you got mugged.

“Random Chaos” – Stuff just happens.

Questions for You

Because I’ve been a “spiritual gypsie”, spending time in many different religious groups, I’ve noticed how group philosophies of suffering can translate into cultures of compassion, judgment, fear, or pride around suffering.

  • What are your observations of the Mormon culture with regard to suffering?
  • Do you think the “persecution as evidence of rightness” thinking still effects Mormon culture today?
  • Have you experienced the down-side of “blessings as a result of good behavior” philosophy?  (People snub you when you’re having a hard time because you must not be doing enough good works if you’re not receiving blessings.)
  • Or do you think the Mormon emphasis on service yields a mostly compassionate culture?
  • Do you think the notion of being rewarded in Heaven for our suffering is just a way for people to comfort themselves and endure, or is it a reality?  Should people seek out suffering in order to please God?
  • Regardless of the cause, can suffering be good for us? Is the “reward” what we learn from the process?  What are your experiences with this?
  • Why do you think suffering happens?

Comments

comments

19 comments for “Perspectives on Suffering

  1. Dblock
    February 11, 2010 at 11:15 am

    First, I wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your post. Very thought provoking.

    Secondly, we were actually talking about this very subject last week at an institute class. The vast majority of the group viewed suffering as opposition. I on the other hand had stated that I felt that not only was it a learning opportunity with respect that once you go thu whatever expeirence (sorry, I’m a terrible speller) your having to learn from it and possibly teach others about what you know.

    In addition, We all know that suffering a part of the pact with made with heavenly father when we agreed to take on mortal bodies. I had many expirences that many people have not had and when I’ve shared them I’ve had people in my branch throw it back in my face saying that I was full of the devil(I grew up in foster care) That’s the view point of many mormons and its’ simply not true.
    People don’t choose to suffer, it happens whether we want it to or not . There are very few circumstances in my viewpoint however, where suffering is a direct result of our actions. (i.e) the first time you use drugs. but even then I don’t think people are thinking thru the consequences of their action to avoid addictions, etc.

  2. Heidi
    February 11, 2010 at 11:38 am

    I think Mormons give too little credit for suffering to nature, pure and simple. Genetics, human nature, economic nature, the climate. I think the mere nature of the world provides us with plenty of suffering and opposition without God or Satan needing to contribute much.

  3. February 11, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Dblock,

    I’m glad you liked my post.

    Do you mean that you’ve had experiences of suffering that you feel you’ve learned from and have ended up being positive, but then when you share them people can’t relate and think the devil caused it?

    Ecumenigal

  4. Mike S
    February 11, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you for the post. It made me stop and think for a bit, which is always a good thing.

    The past few years, various things have happened in my life which caused a fair amount of suffering. I ran the gamut of responses and justifications you gave above. At various times, I looked at all the causes you delineated. And when all was said and done, I am a changed person.

    Regarding your specific questions: I don’t think the Mormon faith is very good at helping us comes to terms with suffering. I was told things like, “you just have to forgive the other person, otherwise your sin is worse than theirs”. While this is ultimately true, at the time of suffering it is a bland platitude.

    Our emphasis on works and external things as opposed to faith and trust in God is also very counterproductive at a time of suffering. It made me spend more time looking at myself to see what I was doing wrong for these things to happen. Is there some work I was doing, or not doing, that was the cause? We hear, lose yourself in the work. Again, at the time of suffering, this rings hollow. I’ve come to the realization that many things just happen. They are not the result of anything we did. They are not a result of God cursing us, or withholding blessings. They are not a result of Satan thwarting us. They just are. It’s an unavoidable fact of life. We just need to decide how we are going to approach the inevitable suffering.

    Regarding the Mormon service of culture making a more compassionate culture, I actually think it is the opposite in many, many ways. Perhaps it’s more Utah culture, but people here in SLC seem much more competitive than in other areas I’ve lived. I know many, many high ranking Church leaders who wouldn’t be caught dead having a glass of wine, but who screw others daily in business. I personally think there are much more compassionate religions, and even non-religions like Buddhists, etc. I have many atheist friends who are more compassionate to others and to the earth than many Mormons. And even on an institutional basis (not to threadjack), the Church has spent $270 million cash and another $700 million or so in in-kind donations over the past 25+ years on humanitarian causes (compassion). In the past few months, they have spent $10s of millions in cash on real estate purchases just in SLC, and the price for the shopping mall is approaching $3 BILLION – or more than 3x the cash AND in-kind donations than they have spent on humanitarian needs in 1/4 of a century – for a single mall.

    At the end of the day, what is the “reward” for suffering? I have spent the past couple of years knocked out of my complacency. I have read the scriptures more. But I have also learned much more about other ways of approaching suffering. I have actually felt the most peace with Buddhist teachings and practices, and they have helped me much, much more than anything I could find in the LDS Church. My relationship with God has been strengthened. My relationship with the LDS Church has been weakened. I feel much more compassionate towards my fellowman. I feel much less supportive of the institution of the LDS Church. I am still active LDS as I think it is a reasonable framework in which to raise my family. I follow the precepts as I feel that if one chooses to follow any organization, then you should agree to abide by its rules, no matter how quaint. At the same time, I don’t really care about how individuals in the Church see me anymore. My relationship with God is much bigger than that.

    In developing more compassion for everyone, I also feel that God loves the 99.9% of the world not active-LDS as much as, or in some cases more than, active-LDS people. This greatly affected my attitudes towards missionary work, etc. I don’t think that the LDS Church is the best way for everyone to approach God. For some people, yes, but for many, many others, no.

    So, I suffered a great deal over the past few years. It caused me to search both inside and outside for answers. I am certainly a different person now. I think it’s a better person. I’m sure some people would think my relationship with the LDS Church is worse – I don’t know. In any event, I have found more peace and love.

  5. February 11, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Sometimes acts that hurt and acts that heal are the same act. We can’t say that an act that helps us is an act of God, but the SAME act that hurts us is NOT the act of God. Does not compute.

  6. Dblock
    February 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    @#3 response to Ecumenigal

    Exactly, I will give you an example. One day in relief society we were talking about how to better help the homeless. I thought it was appropriate to share my expierence of being homeless due to not being able to work while dealing with severe anxiety/panic attacks which were brought on because of two completely different medical issues, one of which required chemotherapy. I didn’t qualify for any government assitance because I was a single person who did not have children.

    I was told by one of the sisters that not only was fill of the devil, but I was never hungry and if I was I should have eaten out of the garbage can. This is just mild compare to other hurtful things she has said. I had my home teacher , who herd me talk about these things tell me that I had severe emotional problems that needed to be examined both spiritually and professionally and that he had the right to tell me these things because he was a former branch president.

    No one in leadership did anything about these two individuals and I mean at the stake level. The result, now being that I am inactive.

  7. Ray
    February 11, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks for this post. It was thought-provoking.

    My focus last month as part of my New Year’s Resolution was on the phrase “charity suffereth long, and is kind.” The following is a post from my personal blog, with an excerpt that deals directly with your basic questions:

    “Why Must Charity Suffer Long – and Be Kind?” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2010/01/why-must-charity-suffer-long-and-be.html)

    1) Suffering simply is part and parcel with mortality.

    It is the “opposition” to ease and health and all other results of the lack of suffering. It is unavoidable – as essential to existence as rest. It just must needs be. Therefore, the first, most fundamental key is NOT to avoid suffering, but rather to accept its inevitability and “endure to the end”.

    In many descriptions of living in the desert, one common theme emerges: the uselessness of “fighting the desert” and, instead, the need to embrace it for what it is. Those who learn to do so can live and even thrive in conditions that otherwise harm, kill and drive mad.

    As I said in my last post, I do not believe in prolonging suffering simply for the sake of suffering. Each day (and week and month and year) will bring its own inevitable suffering. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34) is a good guide, in my opinion. There is no need to wish for more. It is not the AMOUNT of suffering that matters; it is the MANNER in which it is embraced that counts. That manner can be manifest in small or great things. All that really counts is that the suffering is ours, personally.

    2) Suffering properly can bring great growth.

    The ultimate test of endurance is not the nature of the suffering but rather the RESULT – how we act and what we become through the trial of our faith – through the things we suffer without being able to see the end of our suffering. (Again, I am not speaking of specific, quantifiable “events of suffering” but rather the totality and duration of our comprehensive suffering.) Some who suffer are gentled by it; others are hardened. It is important to understand and embrace the fundamental need for and inescapability of suffering in order to avoid being broken and embittered by it.

  8. Dblock
    February 11, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    @ Ray,

    I wish I were as eloquent with my words as you are with yours. Thanks for your post.

  9. February 11, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    Dblock,

    Thanks for the examples. I’ve had a lot of health problems myself, and I’ve concluded that the hardest part of having health problems is the judgment from other people.

    The example you gave is classic. “But you weren’t hungry!” is just another way of saying, “I can’t deal with this!” “You should have eaten out of a garbage can” is just another way of saying, “If I were in that situation, I would know what to do and somehow it would be alright.”

    I think no matter how uncommon our experiences are, they normalize for us. So, when we just want to chat matter-of-factly about that one time when we were homeless, or that other time when we were crawling to the kitchen as usual and something funny happened, it has a bigger impact on others than for us. Sometimes they think we are “complaining” or “enjoying” the drama of the hardship, but that’s again a classic thing – people assume that because we have a certain effect on them, that we are doing what we’re doing IN ORDER TO have that effect. I don’t talk about my life in order to knock people over the head with the difficulty of it. I just want to chat about my day to day life with friends like everyone else.

    Even the best of friends never really get used to it or never really “get it” what my life is like, so it still comes as a surprise every time they hear about some detail of living being different in my life than they take for granted.

    In the end, my own happiness has depended on dramatically lowering my expectations of people and trying to forgive them. Most importantly, I try to hear what they’re really saying instead of the words that are coming out. If I listen to their hearts, what it seems like they’re really saying is, “I’m scared. I can’t face this right now. My life is hard and I don’t have room to see that yours is hard too.” I remember feeling that way about people with serious problems in the past. I was just glad it wasn’t me and it was too harsh to sit there and be with them in their experience. I wanted to avoid them because I just couldn’t deal with the pain of it. Now the tables have turned. I’ve become a much more compassionate person because suffering doesn’t scare me any more.

  10. February 11, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Mike S, Next Tuesday my post will be more of my story and answer to my own questions here. It resonates with your story. In the end, whatever is the cause and purpose of suffering, I am a changed person, and I’m glad for those changes.

    Ray, muy excellente! I love your post, especially “Some who suffer are gentled by it; others are hardened.” In my post next Tuesday, I’ll talk about how at times I had to give up on even handling my illness graciously. But I like this angle. What matters most is the outcome.

    I also found this thought provoking: It is important to understand and embrace the fundamental need for and inescapability of suffering in order to avoid being broken and embittered by it.

  11. February 11, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Some Mormons tend to be far too cricital of those who suffer. They seem to believe that chronic or serious illness, financial problems, family members’ wrong-doing or mental illness result from breaking the Word of Wisdom, not living providently enough, or not being a good parents.

    I believe God asks us not to judge others because only He knows the heart. All of us will be much happier and experience greater peace if we refuse to judge others, live mindfully, and choose loving kindness. When we emphasis our own works over God’s grace, we more easily assume a judgmental mentality. I have studied Buddhism extensively over the past couple of years, and I have discovered principles that foster peace.

    There is much that we can learn from other religions that enhance our own beliefs and that help us better understand the Savior’s teaching. I believe that Buddhism is one of them.

  12. Mike S
    February 12, 2010 at 12:07 am

    #11: As I mentioned above in (#4 – which ended up too long) I too have found much peace in Buddhism and a much better understanding of suffering, more so than in my works-dominated LDS faith.

  13. February 12, 2010 at 10:34 am

    #11 and #12: You guys are making me think seriously about studying more Buddhism. I know the basics, and even had a Buddhist Monk roommate once, but never made a really deep study of it.

    Seems like religion offers:

    1. Cosmology
    2. Philosophy
    3. Practice/Tools
    4. Social Structure and Culture

    When it comes to spiritual practices and actual tools for dealing with suffering, Buddhism seems to lead the pack. During my foray into seeking help from mainstream psychology, I found that the most powerful therapy going these days (according to the doctors I worked with) is DBT, which is a year-long group class developed by a research psychologist who repackaged Buddhist mindfulness. She broke it down into baby steps and exercises to make each progressive insight sink in. The class was paced too slow for me, but the videos by Marsha Lanahan were great. It was really kind of heartening to find out that this is what they teach in in-patient psychiatric units all over the country. Buddhism! (Well, certain Buddhist insights, anyway.)

  14. February 12, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Mike S

    Hooray for Buddhism–the religion of compassion!

    “I don’t think that the LDS Church is the best way for everyone to approach God.”

    I so agree with your statement above. God obviously knows how different we all are and has given us various ways to approach Him. The world is full of happy non-LDS people living fulfilled lives. Why would God give us only one plan and condemn us for not accepting it when He hasn’t made it abundantly clear that it is the only logical choice?

  15. February 13, 2010 at 12:08 am

    A good friend of mine was in a car accident a few years ago, broke her neck, and became a quadriplegic. After spending a few weeks in the hospital her stake president came to her home to visit. While sitting in their living room he told her that God clearly did this to her because of her need to repent and live a better life, and that now she had a second chance to do that, despite her new handicap. She said that if she could, she would have stood up and slapped the guy, but was unable. We ought to be careful that we don’t presume the reason(s) that other people go through trials, even if we are their priesthood leader.

    I agree with Mike S that sometimes suffering and bad things just happen to people. There isn’t reason or logic behind it, at least as we have power to do anything to stop or prevent it. I think that sometimes we like to compartmentalize people who go though suffering as being different than us (for example, they are sinful in a certain way), and then attribute that difference as the cause of their suffering, because it makes us feel protected against the same thing happening to us. History and certainly my own personal experience demonstrates to me that nobody is immune from suffering. No matter how righteous you think you are or how much you pray, it can and will happen to you. The best way to avoid suffering seems to make pragmatic decisions like choosing the right kind of friends, living a healthy lifestyle, etc… that to some degree will insulate and protect us from misfortune.

  16. February 16, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Aron L: “I think that sometimes we like to compartmentalize people who go though suffering as being different than us (for example, they are sinful in a certain way), and then attribute that difference as the cause of their suffering, because it makes us feel protected against the same thing happening to us.”

    You it the nail on the head. Very well put.

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