Through the lens of pain and loss, all hope seems to scatter.
We all know this sensation. Part of our journey as humans is to experience the doubt of suffering. Our success on that journey is often defined by our ability to cope with it.
The struggle appears in many, many ways. I watched a basketball team lose a championship game yesterday. The entire game was a struggle for these young men as they fought the mental battle with themselves while physically competing against a tough opponent. The doubt appeared early and never left. They saw the loss on the horizon and no amount of coaching or reassurance was going to remove the fear. The final buzzer ended the contest but the loss had taken hold long before.
For those struggling with illness and physical or mental pain, the struggle is no game. Coping with a singular loss while performing with peak physical capabilities is disappointing; perhaps even devastating in that moment. Day to day suffering claws at the very essence of your being. Unlike a sports contest, there is no time clock to end the misery. There are no time outs and no water breaks. Often, there are no teammates sharing in the struggle. It is a lonely, exhausting path and even with incredible external love and support, the situation can feel hopeless.
We see the same challenge when we lose a loved one. The pain runs deeply in a place where no medicine can be applied. There is no salve to sooth the hurt and no visible timeline to the end of the suffering. These are skinned knees of a different sort, as we walk along scab-less but with the ongoing sting of scars unseen. In the face of death, hope scatters quickly.
Though part of our destiny is to endure these struggles, the good news is that we are built for them. We are made to prevail; designed to go on. Our self awareness guarantees that we will consume ourselves with these struggles but in it lies our salvation. Even in the darkest moments we have choices.
Choice #1 – will I choose hope or despair? When we’re struggling, despair often defaults as choice #1. It is easy. We’re frustrated, hurting, down. In that moment, hope is a luxury. How do we find it? For me, hope starts with God. A belief in something greater. A faith in purpose. A willingness to let go, even for a moment, of my own wants, needs, and plans. In the moment, prayer can be centering by creating an equilibrium between self absorption and the slow process of looking beyond our suffering. If you are inclined this way, great! Faith gives you a tremendous edge in coping.
However, choosing hope does not stop there. A key aspect of choosing hope is looking beyond this moment, into the past then toward future. The past give us perspective on joyful experiences, successes, and other moments in which we endured suffering. The future shows us what might be; what lies beyond these moments. To choose hope is to decide that this is a moment in time, that our current suffering has not always existed, and will at some point end.
Choice #2 – will I choose action or inaction? In the midst of fear, pain, and loss, we often freeze. The uncertainty and doubt conspire to make us to feel that life is acting upon us and we curl up into a ball to take the punches as best we can. In this place of self-fulfilling prophecies, we fall into the trap of playing the role of victim and convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do. In a basketball game, we tell our self that our shot isn’t going to fall, in injury we obsess over our limitations, and in loss we embrace the coldness of moments that might have been.
Choosing action is positioning your self for forward motion and intentionally stepping in that direction. For the basketball player convinced that the universe is conspiring against his jump shot, he might choose to go for layups or to focus on building momentum through aggressive defense. For the patient recovering from a knee replacement, it means focusing on the seemingly insignificant steps of movement and mundane exercise. For the grieving widow, it might mean engaging with your family and friends in new ways or giving of yourself to the benefit of others. Choosing action is, by its nature, an act of hope and creates its own form of momentum toward healing.
Choice #3 – will I choose to suffer well or embrace the misery? Suffering will find us and it is not pessimistic to believe so. We live in a complex, high touch world. The struggles go hand in hand with the joys. We are blessed with worthy challenges. Can we look at them that way? I suppose this is a bit of corollary to choosing hope. The truth is that our mind is our most significant weapon and our most significant weakness when we struggle. Finding our best when suffering requires us to suffer well. This doesn’t mean we masochistically embrace the pain: “Thank you sir, may I have another!” It means that we view the suffering as a hurdle to be cleared; a challenge to be managed.
To suffer well is to acknowledge the pain, feel it, and remind your self every moment that you are strong enough to endure it. When we suffer well, we show those around us that in spite of the hurt, are determined and hopeful. I’m not suggesting a false stoicism. There is no hiding the hurt and we are not trying to convince our self, or others, that we don’t hurt or that we aren’t struggling. However, to suffer well is to avoid the “woe is me” syndrome that creates a black hole around us sucking all hope and joy into its dark abyss. Yes, it hurts. Yes, its dark. Yes, it sucks. And yes, I’m making progress.
Our society has a serious problem with coping right now. From drugs to outbursts of violence, we are running away from suffering into the darker evils of escape and self-destructive attempts to mask the hurt. Until we can learn to find our best when we fall into our worst, we will continue to struggle with the challenges that inevitably appear. I’ve offered up three simple choices to consider when we’re chin-deep in the doubt or pain. However, they aren’t easy. Suffering brings us face-to-face with our defining moments in profoundly formative and evolutionary ways. We must decide to evolve to more. We have to make the choices.