Finding the purpose in our suffering

Pain is one of the most personal things any of us ever experiences. Whether physical or emotional, pain has the ability to focus our attention unlike almost any other human experience.

This past week, I spent time in the dentist’s chair having a root canal done and my wife will be having one done herself in a few days. While the days leading up to mine were uncomfortable enough that I was looking forward to having it done, the days leading up to Charlene’s are being excruciating, making it difficult for her to get work done and making us willing to spend extra money just to get it taken care of sooner. Even though we are having similar procedures for similar dental problems, our personal experiences are vastly different.

Our sufferings may be similar, but they’re not the same.

Because of the differences in experience, I can’t say I “know” what she’s going through. I can’t brush off her pain and say, “Oh, it’s not big deal. I just had a root canal, too, and the discomfort is minimal at best. You can handle this. Just suck it up.”

Because of the similarities, though, I have a good sense of what she’s going through — not the extent of it, but the shape of it. In fact, as she goes through her pain, I can almost feel it in my own body, since I retain the memory of my own discomfort. And that, I believe, is what gives purpose to the pains we each suffer.

The fruit of suffering is compassion, an ability to understand the pain others are going through by remembering the pains we have gone through ourselves.

This isn’t an “I know exactly what you are going through” attitude that reduces the experience of others to what I experienced myself and is really more about me than about them. Rather, it is a redemption of what I’ve experienced by enabling me to know how others might be suffering and caring for them in the midst of it.

If suffering doesn’t make us tender, we’ve wasted it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by a certain kitchen tool. It was a wooden mallet with a bumpy metal end. My Mom didn’t appreciate it, but I’d get it out and play with it on a regular basis, brandishing it like Thor’s war hammer, Mjöllnir.

Then, one day, I saw my mother use it as it was intended, pounding a piece of beef in preparation for cooking it. The mallet, she said, is a tenderizer, a tool for softening tough meat and bringing out its juices.

A tenderizer. That’s what suffering is. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be for. It’s purpose is to make our tough parts softer, to bring out the flavors hidden within us.

Now, pain can do just the opposite. It can close us down and turn us inward. That’s generally the case when we’re in the midst of it. But it can also be the case afterward, as we toughen ourselves up in self-protection, trying to make sure that we never experience that pain again. Instead of becoming softer, we armor ourselves. Instead of becoming sweeter, we become bitter. Instead of turning outward, we turn inward.

This is where our choice comes to play. We get to decide whether we will become tender or tough, sweet or bitter, outward or inward. The same pain can have incredibly different results, depending on what we choose to do with it.

This is where prayer comes in for me and where suffering shapes the quality of my praying.

Generally, when I am in the midst of suffering, my prayers are all about me and getting me out of the pain. I just want it done, and I want God to rescue me from it as soon as possible. Yesterday would be best.

Those are the initial prayers and I believe they’re appropriate. A cry for help when drowning is always appropriate. But it needs to go beyond just me. To continue the drowning image, if I’ve been saved from drowning, I ought to express my gratitude. But once I am beyond my own trauma, I need to turn toward the water to see if I can aid anyone else who might be drowning as well.

Let’s go back to my root canal story.

I can pray my way through the pain, go to the dentist, be done, and never think about it again. Or I can go through it and then turn my prayers and attention toward my wife and others who are going through similar pains. Teaching me how to do the second option is the purpose of pain.

Every time I suffer something new, I become aware of that form of suffering in the world and am given the choice of become a person of compassion toward others suffering from it or of walling it away and trying to protect myself from feeling that awful pain every again.

If I stub my toe, I become aware of all of the stubbed toes out there in the world. If I get my heart broken, I become aware of all of the broken hearts. If I get fired from a job, if I have my home burglarized, if I get a cold, if I am betrayed by a friend, if I am audited by the IRS, if I have a root canal — if I experience any kind of human pain, I am put in the place of choosing whether to let it make me bigger or smaller as a person, whether to let it make me cave in on myself or turn outward toward the needs of others, seeing them clearly for the first time.

Suffering should soften our hearts and open our eyes.

Suffering should spur us on to prayer and service for others who suffer similarly.

Suffering should show us the heart of God, who loved us so much he entered into the pain of this world, willingly suffered along with us and for us, and is moving all things toward a day when suffering will cease.