The Dignity of Suffering


For the most part, if we were to gaze upon the annals of historical achievement, weaknesses and examples of suffering were discussed only in terms of the vanquished foe. Except perhaps in communist movements, there have not been many times when people bragged about their suffering.

That isn’t the case today.  In fact, one way to gain street cred is by having a horror story of a home life. This is seen in the media, but it has trickled down even to elementary schools. My daughter states that compared to everyone else, her life is boring. She isn’t being raised by her grandparents. Her parents are married and neither of us are drug addicts or mentally ill. She is loved and taken care of but not spoiled. In her world, this means she has no street cred–she is on the outside looking in.

I find it weird since I experienced the opposite problem as a kid. My parents were divorced, I spent time in foster care when my mother was institutionalized for being mentally ill, and I lived with my grandparents for a time until my Dad was able to take care of us. During my childhood, my experiences put me on the outside looking in.  

It’s a strange thing what suffering has become. Ironically, if we are honest, we know that suffering in itself has no redeeming features, except to dig down to the roots of a person. Suffering can only reveal our character–to do the work of refining requires the person’s participation.

Suffering Differently

Viktor Frankl wrote a lot about this in Man’s Search for Meaning which he completed after spending years in concentration camps during the Holocaust. As a clinical psychologist, he noted the reactions to the horrible and intense suffering of those around him. He saw people make choices that were totally normal in the circumstances in order to survive at any cost. There were some, though, that chose to respond in a strange way–instead of focusing on surviving, these few still lived. They noticed the sunsets. They were not afraid to cry.  In these places, where they had no control over any area of their daily lives, they made a choice.

Frankl notes, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

He discusses that it takes courage to suffer–to not just numb yourself to life and your surroundings. This is the battle we all face, too, with our varying degrees of suffering. We all choose our method for coping from seemingly innocuous things like sleep and watching TV to the dangers of drugs and drunkenness. In our own way, we are all running away, rather than facing our pain with courage.

Frankl says instead of numbing ourselves, we need to ask ourselves the hard questions:

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

It is in this moment that we who have suffered much or suffered little are no longer victims. He spoke these same words to his fellow prisoners in the concentration camps.  These very words inspired them and gave them back control over their lives. Suffering had been dealt to them–the question was now what they would do with it. They were empowered to stand with dignity and suffer courageously without backing down.

These are the true heroes of the world, and we must look to them to learn how to suffer. And learn we must because, like it or not, there is no avoiding the suffering of this world.

All Life Includes Suffering

M. Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Traveled explains:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to convince ourselves that life isn’t or shouldn’t be difficult. We peruse Instagram and Facebook and are convinced we are the only ones who aren’t living the dream life. We fear that we are missing out. This lie is the one tempts me to walk away from social media. We are not okay. We all hurt. We all struggle.

We Must Choose

We must decide what we are going to do with this strange life we have been given. God does not make promises of ease, only of His presence.  It is His presence that gives us the courage to suffer with dignity and hope. Because He lives, I know I can face tomorrow, the chorus goes.

It’s not just for us. As parents, we have a job to help our kids learn how to suffer. This doesn’t mean of course that we intentionally harm them.  Life is hard enough–none of us is smart enough, good-looking enough, or strong enough. We must help them learn not to numb the pain, but to stand like Job did and be questioned. We need to empower them to cry and hurt and still get up with confidence. This is the gift of suffering in dignity.

It’s not about comparing hurts like our culture wants to do. Instead, it’s about deciding how we will respond to the hurts that come no matter who we are. Choosing to be brave helps us model the Proverbs 31 woman who “ is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future” Proverbs 31:25 NLT). Once we see that suffering has dignity, we won’t fear it anymore.

Photo by Jonathan Rados on Unsplash

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