It is understandable, of course, that we will seek to avoid suffering whenever possible. We look dimly on people who seek to impose suffering on others and regard wanting to inflict suffering on ourselves as a form of pathology. Clearly, suffering Is not something that tends to get seen in a positive light, and quite rightly so.
However, this is not to say that suffering cannot also bring positives in some ways. There are, of course, lessons that can be learned from suffering – not least in relation to how to take steps to avoid such suffering in the future. However, it is important that we approach such lessons in a balanced way. For example, if we have suffered because we have been hurt by someone we thought we could trust who has let us down, we may be tempted to draw out the lesson from this that we should not trust people in future. That sort of reaction would be understandable as a response to the pain we have experienced, but – understandable or not – it would not be a helpful lesson in the longer term, as it would simply not be practicable.
It is a heart response, whereas what we need to do by way of drawing out the lessons to be learned is to make it a response that balances head and heart. So, rather than over-reacting by saying: ‘I am not going to trust anyone ever again’, the more realistic conclusion we can come to is: ‘I am going t be very careful about who I trust in future’.
But it isn’t just by learning how to avoid future hurt that suffering can be positive. It can also help us to appreciate other positives, to tune in to what we have going for us, rather than just get bogged down in what we have going against us. To put it more figuratively, a light will shine much more brightly in a context of darkness than it would in broad daylight. Suffering provides the contrast that highlights the positives.
In these consumerist days where the potential for happiness is so often equated with purchasing power, suffering can help us be more fully aware that material goods mean relatively little in the overall scheme of things. The negativity of suffering can highlight the non-materialistic positives we have in our lives – our relationships, for example.
In this way, we can see suffering as a spiritual matter, a contribution to our sense of who we are and how we fit into the world. This is why it can be so hurtful if someone belittles our suffering, it strikes it the very heart of our being and undermines us.
Suffering can also be a great motivator. Consider, for example, how many people have committed themselves to good causes because of their own suffering. Hospices generally have lots of volunteers who give up their time to help others who are suffering, because they have been there, they have trodden that painful path.
This is not to say that we should seek out suffering or use its positive value as an excuse to inflict it on others – life is such that suffering is never far away, so there is no need for us to create it artificially.