“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
I don’t know if it’s the time of year, phase of life, or just my peculiar vantage point, but I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto. Everyone I know is going through some serious suffering. I’m not talking about the suffering one feels watching a Tom Cruise movie, or hearing the phrase, “I know, right?” I’m talking about suffering chronic illness, staring mortality in the face, losing a loved one, being in dire financial straits: in other words, Hell.
To say that suffering is difficult and that no one wishes to experience it is to state the obvious. But, as the Buddha said, life is suffering. Suffering is unavoidable. It is also underrated.
Suffering is valuable—the right sort of suffering, that is. It’s very important to distinguish between legitimate pain and the suffering we create when we try to avoid pain. Such avoidance creates what is called neurotic suffering: the suffering caused when we resist what is.
Neurotic suffering creates anxiety and depression, the evil twins of psychological resistance. Anxiety is like a bird caught in a room, unable to find its way out, frantically flying into walls. Depression is the bird that has frozen, closed its eyes, and given up.
Unfortunately, both of these poor birds—symptoms of a soul in grief—are not often tended with any real compassion or understanding; instead they are Zanaxed or Paxiled into emotional oblivion. Sadly, medicating does not address the root of the problem. It does not free the bird to fly; it merely sticks the bird in a cage with some seeds and leaves the room.
The real suffering of life—the unavoidable agonies—are not problems to be solved but experiences to be faced and felt. This is what is meant by meaningful suffering. Being with what is, facing our vulnerabilities and fears, our conflicts and pain, is how we grow, how we become fully human. Allowing oneself to feel the pain of life’s slings and arrows without judgment or avoidance allows our suffering to complete its natural flow, its work, if you will, and that work is to create wiser, deeper, more compassionate human beings. Meaningful suffering connects us to our humanity, to our deeper selves and to one another. It is the growing pains of the soul.
Staying present, particularly in the midst of our pain, is one of the most difficult things there is. Not trying to evade it and not judging it are equally challenging. We are, by nature, pain-avoidant, judgy creatures. But the treasure such presence contains! The peace it brings, the compassion and wisdom and depth it creates, are priceless gifts, found only in the deep, dark places that touch into hell.
So if you find a poor bird, frightened and disoriented, perhaps even wounded in a dark corner of your house, have compassion. Stay with it. Speak gently. Move slowly. Let it rest and breathe. Open the doors and windows and it will find its way to a more expansive home.