The Russian writer and philosopher Dostoyevsky once said, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” We can recognize the weight of this idea easily enough, but when placed in the context of the holocaust (as it was in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning), this thought becomes profound. Imagine being starved and beaten for months on end and still holding to this idea! Recently I had a less noble version of this thought as I considered the typical interactions between a person with cancer and those who know them.
In light of the extreme suffering that cancer causes a person, the community around them usually responds with providing the family with food to help ease the burden of suffering. If I ever got cancer, I would love getting the free food, but what if I was unworthy of my suffering? What if I was a remarkably bitter, dramatic, or slanderous person with cancer and people gave me free food out of obligation instead of love? If that were the case, each kind gesture would serve to empty my joy, not fill it. The knowledge that I did not deserve their kindness in my suffering would cause their support to manifest as deepening my pain rather than relieving it. While certainly superficial, this thought helped drive home the idea conveyed by Dostoyevsky: suffering will always come in one form or another – to be worthy of my suffering makes it meaningful instead of empty. If I know I don’t deserve the kindness I receive, it feels more like gasoline getting poured in the fire of my shame.
We humans hate suffering so much that even the possibility of future suffering causes immediate suffering – otherwise known as worry. This idea of being worthy of my sufferings seems to fly in the face of fear and worry and, quietly honestly, we need that. We are waist deep in wisdom that reminds us of the value of suffering, yet the thought of it cripples us. “Pain is the touchstone for all spiritual progress” (Bill W.), “’…I will not cause pain without allowing something new to be born,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 66:9 – NCV), “Character cannot be developed in ease and quite” (Hellen Keller), “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering” (Nietzsche). We hear all these things, but where is their effect? Where is the trust that suffering actually has meaning or can make us better?
The problem, obviously, is that finding purpose within suffering is often difficult. How does one live a life that is worthy of suffering? In other words, when suffering inevitably comes, how do we live a life that will give meaning to our suffering? The answer will be unique not only to each person, but also to each new situation for that person. This means there are no easy answers, but I can give you a few places to start.
- Flip the script. In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning he describes how a patient came to see him due to chronic depression resulting from the death of their spouse. Frankl recounts how the patient just couldn’t seem to get past the suffering caused by the loss and felt stuck. This patient was encouraged to think about what their spouse would have been feeling had the patient been the one who passed away. “Oh, they would have suffered terribly!” the patient said. Frankl then flipped the script and the result was amazing. He told the patient to imagine the pain their spouse would be feeling right now and consider how much suffering they had saved their spouse since they were bearing that suffering instead. Frankl said that, after one session, the patient now had meaning in their grief and the depression disappeared. How can you flip the script in your life? If you have a tough marriage, maybe you can flip the script by seeing how your spouse challenges you to grow, thus putting meaning into the suffering. This principle won’t work in all situations, but it may be the start you need.
- Focus on hope. The kind of hope you focus on matters a great deal here. People who focus their hope on specific things outside their control tend to end up disappointed and hopeless. This could be things like, “my marriage will be better by Christmas”, or “this will all help me get a promotion by next quarter.” This kind of hope means that your purpose in suffering is provisional and only truly means something if the goal happens as expected and in the allotted time. If the marriage doesn’t change in the way you expected or as soon as you wished, your hope turns sour and painful. Healthy hope typically involves no time frames and only things within your control. This can look like, “traffic is teaching me the value of patience right now”, or “my story might help someone after this is all said and done.” When you focus on real hope, but remain careful to leave room for real life, you are often rewarded with both immediate purpose and hope fulfilled later.
- Be the best of you. The thing about suffering is that you never know when and how it will strike. If you want to be worthy of your suffering, the best strategy is to start training right now. Relish every chance to learn a lesson in patience, integrity, flexibility, or anything that will improve your internal and external self. I hope you notice that this is also practice in “flipping the script” because each lesson becomes an asset rather than a frustration. I think James put it best in his famous line, “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4 – NIV). If I use my opportunities to better myself, during suffering or before it strikes, I will be (or at least become) worthy of my suffering.
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