The answer to the question, “What is suffering?” is complicated. Those who have studied suffering tell us that the essence of suffering is the feeling that we are losing part of ourselves, losing our “intactness,” as one researcher put it.
Losing part of us is a threat to our “self”, to who we believe we are. Those suffering from depression, for instance, don’t feel free to be themselves. If part of someone’s identity is to be a professional hockey player, but then he blows out his knee ending his career, he will suffer because the way he makes sense of himself—his identity no longer matches his reality.
Today, suffering is generally considered an unacceptable feeling. Drug companies advertise pills for everything from toothache to insomnia, leaving the impression that anyone who suffers does so unnecessarily. To live the good life, we shouldn’t suffer. Parents routinely feel the need to protect their children—even adult children—from the suffering that accompanies failure.
Yet there are many people who praise suffering as a path to personal growth and enlightenment. Dr. Wong, whose work underlies much of the program at SCHC, has stated publicly he is thankful that he has suffered so much in his life. It was because of personal suffering that he pursued his theories on meaning. And, of course, Viktor Frankl developed his idea that the most fundamental motivation in human beings was to live a personally meaningful life, based in large part on the suffering he witnessed (and experienced) in the Nazi death camps.
In fact, psychological research has found, for example, that it is through suffering that we learn to be resilient in the face of adversity and handle failure with dignity and courage.
Suffering and addiction go hand in hand. In this series we’ll examine the nature of suffering, and why and how individuals can use it to their benefit.
Suffering is Natural and Necessary
The great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said that to live is to suffer. Suffering is as natural to life as a heartbeat. If you think that someone lives the good life without suffering—say, a celebrity—think again. All human beings suffer. Being diagnosed with a major illness, realizing that death is approaching, dealing with teenagers, screwing up at work, failing a test, being in an accident, being publicly humiliated, trudging through those days when everything goes wrong, being rejected by a lover, hearing a nasty piece of gossip about you, being really bored, being depressed or anxious, and on and on.
In fact, Nietzsche said that some people even seek out suffering—provided they find a reason for it. Lots of people willingly suffer for a cause. Just think of those who volunteer for combat. Some people say that the greatest accomplishments in life come from blood, sweat, and tears.
Suffering is how we grow as human beings. We learn to solve problems because of failure and how to lose with dignity. We learn resilience, how to get going when the going gets tough, and that we are more capable than we thought we were. And, perhaps most importantly, we learn that we are the authors of our lives.
Making Sense of Suffering
The great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said that if life has any meaning at all, then there must be meaning in suffering (because all human beings suffer). Rather than dismissing suffering as something “bad” or useless, we can make sense of it in a way that makes us stronger.
Those who endure hardship may recognize that they are, for example, a lot tougher than they thought. Many who have faced adversity, such as the actor Christopher Reeve, have told us that it was through personal suffering that they discovered who they were and how beautiful (and fragile) life is. Someone who has gone through hell will likely not be overly upset with a sore tooth, because they’ve gained perspective.
In the addiction field, psychologist Ken Hart suggests that recovery from addiction is improved if the addict can make sense of their suffering when they “hit bottom.” Being plunged into severe emotional pain need not be a terrible thing. Suffering can motivate a person to quit the drug and find a better life. Typically, they might learn that how they have been making sense of their lives no longer resonates with their reality.
Clients at SCHC have told us of the different ways that they have made sense of their suffering. Several clients looked back at their lives in active addiction and concluded that it was necessary for them to have gone through this suffering in order to prepare them for their new sober lives.
Choosing Your Attitude
Viktor Frankl stressed that each human being has a choice of how to respond to suffering. Some, for example, position themselves as victims. Sadly, these people allow themselves to become overwhelmed by suffering. But others dig deep inside themselves and develop courage, endurance, caring for others, and other qualities, which Frankl described as the “defiant human spirit.”
Fear of Suffering in the Future
Many people fear the possible suffering they will experience in the future.
We hope it’s obvious to you during this series of online programs, that it is impossible to eliminate suffering. The key to dealing with suffering is not to eliminate it, but to transcend it. Rise above suffering.
So how do you transcend suffering? The answer is to focus on the meaning of suffering, not on the suffering itself. What is the purpose of suffering? To develop resilience, courage, dignity, and problem-solving skills? To prepare you for a new purpose in your life? Is the purpose of suffering to let you know that the way you are living is no longer working? Is the purpose of suffering to remind you that you have one life to live so you’d better get on with the business of living?
How We Help (Adult) Children by Allowing Them to Suffer
If you google something such as, “Is it okay to allow children to suffer?”, you might be surprised by the number of experts who answer, “Yes!” For example, psychologist Gordon Neufeld argues that a child needs to learn “futility.” The child will, of course, suffer when faced with futility, but it is necessary for healthy development.
Psychologists have come up with some cute names for parents who do not allow their children to fail or to experience futility, such as helicopter parents (hovering), snowplow (levelling barriers), or lawnmower parents (smoothing the way). These parents are simply overprotective. According to research, helicopter/snowplow/lawnmower parenting produces kids who develop a sense of entitlement, an inability to deal with failure, poor problem-solving skills, a weak sense of responsibility, anxiety, and a lack of toughness.
At SCHC, we often encounter parents who believe their job is to protect their adult child—even if the “child” is 30 years old. These parents foot the bill for lawyers, living expenses, homes, vehicles, and so on. They tell us that their child needs them to step in and take control because they are incapable of helping themselves. The reality is, however, that many of these parents avoid coming to terms with their real motivations. Guilt that they did something to turn their child into an addict, guilt that they did not spend sufficient time with their child, fear of public recrimination if they don’t do something, fear that their child will be angry at them if they don’t help out, and so on.
Some tips: (1) Remember that all adults are the author of their lives. So, support them, but allow them to be responsible for their lives. (2) Do not step in to protect an adult from a natural consequence of their actions.
Of course, this is all easier said than done…