Myth: We need to suffer.

Thomas Moore has a few colourful words to say about the benefits of suffering: ‘Nothing could be more precious, then, than a dark night of the soul, the very darkness of which allows your lunar light to shine. It may be painful, discouraging, and challenging, but it is nevertheless an important revelation of what your life is about. In that darkness you see things you couldn’t see in the daylight. Skills and powers of soul emerge from your frustration and ignorance. . . . You become the wounded healer, someone who has made the descent and knows the territory. You take on depth of colour and range of feeling. Your intelligence is now more deeply rooted and not dependent only on facts and reason. Your darkness has given you character and colour and capacity. Now you are free to make a real contribution. It is a gift of your dark night of the soul.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.

Nephew: You told me about Helen Keller and I looked her up. She said, ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’  Was she right? Do we need to suffer to be happy?

Uncle: No. Happiness comes from satisfying long-term, innate needs. We don’t have an innate need to suffer, do we?

Nephew: But suffering helps us appreciate the good times so that we don’t take them for granted.

Uncle: Yes, there are advantages in suffering. After going through difficult times we can become aware of the superficiality of many of our daily concerns, and discover what really counts in life.

Nephew: That’s what I’m saying!

Uncle: And, suffering can enhance our capacity to understand another person’s pain, which will foster compassion within us and strengthen the bonds we have with humanity.

Nephew: Well there you go!

Uncle: And, suffering can build our confidence in our ability to handle hardship, so the next time we are in strife, we know we can handle it. The more often a sword is in the forge, the stronger it gets.

Nephew: I rest my case!  . . . So . . . why do you say suffering is not important for happiness?

Uncle: We can grow and be happy without suffering. I have met beautiful, happy people who have suffered little. They have sensible attitudes and make the most of their circumstances. And, there are people who have suffered and as a result have become twisted and bitter. As I said to you once before, it’s not the suffering which helps us grow, it’s how we deal with our suffering.

‘It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.’  
Author, Somerset Maugham.

‘I used to spend many years looking for positives in what happened to me, because it’s very important to salvage meaning from schizophrenia. It is not a beautiful experience for most people. Nor is it a mystical experience. Life would have been much better if I hadn’t had it.  . . . Most people do not grow through experiencing schizophrenia. They grow through how they choose to live with it.’  
A quote from Simon Champ in the book, ‘Resilience’, by Anne Deveson.

Nephew: You’re being pedantic.

Uncle: It’s an important distinction. If suffering really does make a person happy, what would you suggest? Hit your toe with a hammer? Stop seeing the person you adore? What are you suggesting, Einstein?

Nephew: I’m not suggesting we make ourselves suffer!

Uncle: Good. We suffer enough in this world without purposely adding to it.

Nephew: It’s just that if we do suffer, over time we might end up happier.

Uncle: Well, no. As I say, it’s how we deal with our suffering which matters. We can gain that skill without having to actually suffer.

Nephew: How?

Uncle: By developing within you the feeling that whatever happens, you’ll handle it. Meanwhile, try to refrain from hitting your toe with a hammer.

Nephew: That’s the best advice ever.

Uncle: But don’t live your life trying to avoid suffering, either.

Nephew: Why not?

Uncle: Have I told you my spider story?

Nephew: Oh. Here we go.

Uncle: Directly above my bed is a light. Where that light meets the ceiling is a brass plate. A few months ago I looked up to see that surrounding that brass plate was a web, and in that web, a spider. It wasn’t a big spider, but it wasn’t a little spider either. And it was black.

Nephew: A Black House spider.

Uncle: I tried to catch it to put it outside, but every time I got near it, it ran under the brass plate. I don’t kill spiders, so spray was out of the question. We came to an agreement: I wouldn’t disturb it, and it wouldn’t disturb me.

Nephew: Brilliant thinking.

Uncle: I knew that spiders living indoors suffer. Without access to the morning dew the spider would die of thirst. So, I dipped my hand in a glass of water and flicked my fingers at the web, to give it a drink. And, so that it wouldn’t starve to death I whacked a fly with a flyswatter just hard enough to stun it. Then I stuck that fly into the web so that its struggles attracted the spider. The spider grabbed the fly and pulled it under the brass plate.

Nephew: Poor fly!

Uncle: I wasn’t going to have my roommate starve to death, thank you very much. Not on my watch.

Nephew: You really are mad, aren’t you?

Uncle: I did the same a few days later: a flick of water and a fly. This went on for months. The spider got bigger, and blacker.

Nephew: Is this a true story?

Uncle: Yep.

Nephew: You’re as mad as a hose let go.

Uncle: Occasionally the spider would spring clean, and I would find on my doona a sprinkle of fly heads and wings.

Nephew: I rest my case.

Uncle: One day I found it had strayed so far from the brass plate I could have caught it. But we had an agreement, so I let it be. It appeared listless. Lethargic. I gave it a drink and a juicy fly but it barely moved.

Nephew: It was dying?

Uncle: Yes. Sure enough, in the morning there on my doona was the spider, dead.

Nephew: Did you at least try to give it CPR?

Uncle: What?

Nephew: Did you conduct an autopsy? It wouldn’t surprise me if you did.

Uncle: No, but I reflected upon its life. In my care that spider had lived in a sterile world, protected from predators. It only had to eat and drink. Its life was sterile. By feeding and protecting that spider I had rendered its life meaningless. Had I been able to catch that spider when I first found it and put it outside, that spider would have been better off.

Nephew: Better off? How do you figure that? It would have starved. Or been eaten. It might have lasted only a day.

Uncle: Yes, but what a day! In its very endeavours to survive its life would have had meaning. It would have lived the life of a spider.

Nephew: Where is this heading, spider man?

Uncle: While thinking about that spider I was reminded of a man, a retired doctor. After he died they found in his house tens of thousands of books. I learned he had been a recluse who had read two books a day.

Nephew: That’s ridiculous.

Uncle: Yes, I found that troubling as well. There are many reasons to read. But to read, and read, and only read . . .  It has been said that if you read a thousand books you get to live a thousand lives, but to live the lives of a thousand others without stepping outside to live your own life . . . yes, I find that troubling.

Nephew: I find this story troubling. It doesn’t seem to have an end.

Uncle: The spider. The recluse. What was the connection between them? And then it hit me. We aren’t meant to play it safe. We belong out there, where it’s dangerous. We are meant to feel hurt. We are meant to feel pain. We are meant to feel fear . . . and outrage . . . As well as  joy, wonder, laughter, and love.

Nephew: Huh?

Uncle: Yes, the pain we feel in life is real, but it’s our job to feel that pain. It’s our job!

Nephew: No one pays us.

Uncle: The point is, we are not meant to live a meaningless life. Don’t aim to be like that spider, protected from suffering, where all it had to do was eat and drink. Don’t aim to be like that doctor who stopped living long before he died. Instead, take risks in life, and if necessary, suffer the consequences.

Nephew: Your point?

Uncle: My point is: don’t fear suffering. It’s normal. It’s a part of life. Move through it. Don’t spend your life trying to avoid it. Your job is to live the painful, but meaningful, life of a human being.

Nephew: You want me to suffer?

Uncle: No, I don’t want you to suffer. At least, not right now. I’m not saying take a running jump into the abyss; I’m saying: develop the capacity to stand at the edge of the abyss, and feel comfortable that if you were to fall in, you could handle it.

Nephew: Who mentioned an abyss?

Uncle: I wish I had one now. I’d throw you in it.

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