I can’t tell you all suffering has meaning. Because the truth is, I have no idea if it does or not.
The question of existential “meaning” is quite above my pay grade as a psychologist. That’s for philosophers and metaphysicians and maybe theologians to figure out.
As a psychologist, what I am interested in is peoples’ interpretation of and behavior around pain and suffering. I’m interested in how people get through suffering, and how they’re even sometimes able to transform suffering into something useful for their own lives and growth.
In that context, I can tell you: suffering, while it’s never pleasant or fun by definition can be useful.
That is to say: our suffering can be useful if we decide it is.
Suffering is not something we wish on ourselves, and I’d recommend not wishing it on others either. It’s not an experience we seek out. But pain and suffering are universal experiences.
No one lives life or escapes life without experiencing pain along the way.
We may not necessarily invite it into our lives…but since it WILL be in our lives at some point, we can decide to use it.
How can we “use” pain or suffering?
Pain and suffering have things to teach us, if we’re up to listening to it.
Pain and suffering can teach us things about how we handle adversity.
They can teach us things about what we consider important.
They can teach us things about what’s really important.
Pain and suffering can teach us how important our own focus is in containing and directing our own experience.
The thing is: if we’re going to take advantage of our suffering— if we’re not going to waste it— we need to make a conscious decision to not let our pain and suffering be for naught.
Understand: this is not the same as glorifying pain and suffering. I’m not for that.
There are people out there who consider the fact that they’ve suffered as some kind of badge of honor. I know of at least one self-help guru who constantly touts his “scars” as evidence of his expertise in “real life” experience.
Having experienced pain and suffering doesn’t make you unique. It makes you human.
We don’t have to glorify pain in order to learn from it.
We do, however, need to be open to allowing things to exist alongside pain in any given moment.
When we experience pain, the temptation is to focus solely on the pain. Pain can sometimes be so intense that it seems difficult, if not impossible, to focus on anything besides the pain in any given moment.
In order to learn or grow from pain, however, we need to be willing to take a step back from the sometimes excruciating experience of pain and look for what else is there. We need to be willing to observe what else is happening in that moment besides pain.
It’s not always, or even usually, easy to do.
As humans, our attention is usually drawn toward the strongest stimulus— which is usually the pain we’re in.
But what else exists along with pain? What is separate from pain?
Our reactions to pain are separate from the pain.
Our emotions about pain are separate from the pain.
Our interpretation of pain, the meaning we assign to the pain, are separate from the pain.
Start getting used to stepping back and looking for these in moments of pain.
It takes practice.
It takes willingness to yank our attention away from the strongest stimulus in that moment.
But it can be done.
And once we start looking at what is happening in moments of pain beside and above and beyond the pain, and interesting thing happens: we begin to transcend the pain.
The pain is no longer the most important thing happening in that moment.
That moment starts to become open to learning and growing.
Again, hear me clearly: I don’t think pain or suffering is an experience that should be sought out if we can reasonably avoid it. I’m not a pain freak.
But I also believe that pain doesn’t have to be a meaningless experience, either.
Even in moments of pain…we have choices.
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