Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
I was recently given the opportunity to experience the humbling pain of a lower back strain. As an active individual blessed with full mobility, my first blush on the situation was anger and frustration. With a little perspective (and some encouragement from my wife, Sally), I was able to take a few steps back from my discomfort and consider it in the broader context of how other people experience the world. What I found was a dose of empathy for the suffering many endure on a daily basis.
It can be so easy to take the smallest things for granted. Walking down a flight of stairs, sitting comfortably in a chair, climbing into a car, or brushing our teeth go unnoticed as part of the mundane ritual of our daily routine. Imagine if any of these actions was painful or nearly impossible to complete? As I moved through my brush with debilitating pain, I considered how suffering could impact various elements of life and the resulting difficulties.
- Mobility. It is a gift to be able to move about freely. There are those who endure pain with every movement. For many, each step, the act of sitting down, climbing in or out of a car, getting into bed, or putting on clothing produces intense pain. Not only does this slow you down physically, it affects the way you view and interact with the world around you.
- Physical Health. Persistent pain shifts how you view your health. For me, workout schedules, diet, and activity were thrown to the side as I shifted from optimization to survival. My entire attitude changed and thoughts of losing a bit of weight or improving my cardiovascular conditioning evaporated in the face of simply getting through the day. It is extremely difficult to consider overall healthiness when you are consumed with survival.
- Mental Health. The first battle started with my attitude. The shock of experiencing the initial injury gave way to anger over this interruption, this inconvenience. I have meetings! I have things to do! I don’t have time for this! As the cries of impotence subsided, the real battle began. The hard work of pushing through, taking steps to help the injury heal, and functioning within my limitations. It is amazing how quickly the mind falls down when the body is struggling.
- Other People. The thing about suffering is that it doesn’t just affect you. It affects everyone around you. If they don’t feel it directly, they feel it by watching you. If they are close to you, then they endure your struggles and limitations. Pain demands laser focus on one thing: yourself. How can I possibly worry about anything else when I’m dealing with debilitating pain (emotional or physical)? Naturally, this is tough on your relationships… with everyone. Now take it one step further: what happens to those who don’t have others to help them?
- Isolation/Loneliness. The thing about suffering is that it is yours. You can tell people about it but, ultimately, you own it and no one else can endure it for you. Pain fosters a sense of isolation and feeds self-absorption. It is easy to see how one might spiral downward in the face of such discomfort.
Amazingly, I’ve only scratched the surface. Imagine each of the above items recurring daily for weeks, months, years. What an incredible battle! Chronic suffering is difficult for me to imagine, yet my brief encounter gave me a sense for what it would demand. In this case, my pain was temporary but it served as a reminder that there are those in the world struggling and suffering. For me, the opportunity in my pain was the reminder of what others are enduring. My personal narrative on suffering shifted as I experienced firsthand the dangers and difficulties presented down that bumpy road.
Though my brief encounter pales in comparison to the suffering of many others, I can’t help but think of approaches to managing the painful elements of our lives and finding a way to turn our suffering into something constructive. If we’re willing to keep our eyes and hearts open, we may find gifts hidden along the way.
- Remember each of us is blessed in some fashion. Even in suffering, opportunities present themselves. Stay open to them and be grateful when they appear.
- Take small steps and look for the small wins. Any arduous path is made easier by focusing on the next step along the way.
- Remember that you are not alone. The world is filled with people who care. We just have to find them…and let them love us.
- Look outside of yourself. As easy as it is to be self-absorbed in the face of suffering, the answer lies outside. The more you help others, the more you help yourself.
- Take care of yourself physically. I mentioned above that it is easy to let go of trying to improve your health in smaller ways when you are focused on survival. I can’t help but think that letting go of the little thing is the worst decision you can make. Though movement was painful, I continued to stretch and force myself to step into the pain because I felt that it would help me heal. That is not always an option but it gave me a direction on which to focus and ultimately helped me.
- Take care of yourself mentally. During my downtime, I found many resources to comfort, distract, motivate, and support me. Read inspirational material. Pray or meditate on words that move you. Pick up that novel you have been meaning to finish. Try to keep your mind active and engaged with things outside of your suffering.
- Find a way to get out and interact with the world. For me, retreating only made everything else worse. No, it won’t be easy and may even increase your pain. However, there are lessons, opportunities, and inspiration waiting out there if we seek it.
One of my favorite bands, Depeche Mode, released a song many years ago entitled “Depeche Mode – Suffer Well.” I always liked the haunting melody but was never quite sure of what it meant to suffer well. As I consider my recent experience with pain, I’ve begun to understand what it means for me.
Just hang on
Sometimes it’s hard
So hard to tell
— Depeche Mode, Suffer Well