“A Spiritual Inquiry: What is Suffering?” (By: Michele Babcock-Nice)

Suffering.  Just what is ‘suffering’ anyway?  What is the meaning of suffering, and why do people suffer?  Why do we experience suffering?  Dictionaries and encyclopedias generally define suffering as relating to pain, distress, and/or emotional pain; anxiety, stress, or aversion to something subjective; and a negative emotion or feeling, etc. 

The New World Encyclopedia defines suffering “as a negative basic feeling or emotion that involves a subjective character of unpleasantness, aversion, harm, or threat of harm.”  I would like to take this definitions and understanding of suffering a bit further, expanding on it to include many types of suffering, including emotional, psychological, physical, physiological, social, moral, and spiritual suffering.

There are so many different types of suffering, and I’m sure that most of us have experienced many – if not all – of them.  During Lent this year in 2012, I especially and personally contemplated the meaning of suffering.  This is a topic about which I have thought in the past, though I found deeper meaning in contemplating it during this past Lenten season.  I thought about Jesus, and all the suffering, pain, anguish, and turmoil he experienced prior to dying as our Savior.  I know that it was God’s will for this to occur, though I wondered why – as I have wondered why throughout my life – this was necessary to occur. 

One man – one holy, Godly man – is able to save us from our own sinfulness through the power of his suffering, death, and resurrection.  Was there no other way to achieve that?  Why was it necessary that Jesus experience such horrific and indescribable suffering in order to save us?  Why, often, does society – even now – turn against those who are good, honest, moral, and ethical.  Why, sometimes, is it that those who are self-serving, corrupt, unjust, unethical, and immoral make gains in their lives over those who are the opposite of them? 

These are not only religious questions, but also philosophical and humanistic questions worth contemplating.  Why is there suffering in the world?  Why does it occur?  Is it something that is necessary to occur as a result of our own humanity?

When I think about suffering, I think about things that I have experienced in my own life – or even that which family members have experienced – and then, when I hear about another’s suffering, what I have experienced sometimes seems to pale in comparison to theirs.  An adult daughter of a friend and colleague is struggling to heal against breast cancer.  This spring, a young girl in my child’s school was recently diagnosed with bone cancer, while another was diagnosed with diabetes.  The daughter of a close friend has been struggling against breast cancer.  Still others whom we know deal with great physical or emotional pain each day. 

Others suffer with physical pain, including a dog that was reported to have killed a family’s two-month-old baby in April 2012.  Still others also grapple with suffering that they may not be able to alleviate, of loved ones killed and who we are unable to revive and bring back.  An example of this that is still all too fresh in our minds is the suffering and death inflicted upon so many at the movie theater tragedy in Aurora, Colorado (http://www.cbsnews.com/2300-201_162-10013055-2.html?tag=page;next).  And, there are countless other examples of suffering, pain, and death that go on and on, such as the fighting in Syria and Northern Ireland, and even in some of our own neighborhoods, such as those in Chicago.

So much suffering.  Why is there suffering?  Why is it a “normal” condition of human life to have and experience suffering?  Is it expected?  Is it necessary?  Is it an unavoidable condition of human life and of all life on earth?  When people worry, are nervous, or are anxious, they experience some degree of suffering.  When people are hungry, homeless, or in need, they are suffering.  When anyone experiences any type of abuse – emotional, physical, sexual, even spiritual – they are suffering.  How can we understand, alleviate, and/or overcome pain and suffering?

If someone has experienced or witnessed a traumatic situation, such as a tragic death of a family member, loss of their home due to a natural disaster, or was involved in a terrible vehicle accident, they have experienced suffering.  There are also those who self-impose suffering onto themselves, inflicting injury on themselves, drinking, doing drugs, being promiscuous, or doing illegal actions – they are suffering.  Therefore, there exist the questions about why people hurt themselves. 

Personally, I feel sorrow and sympathy for those who are suffering, as well as for those who have some type of need within themselves to create or cause suffering on or toward others.  People who are bullies, those who are abusive, those who commit crimes, those who are hateful, those who have no conscience or sense of any wrong-doing when they take life-altering actions against others – I feel sorry for them and I pray for them.  Indeed, I sometimes also feel anger, spite, judgment, and a lack of understanding for their actions, though I also pray for them. 

For these people I just described, I believe they are those who need the most prayers.  They may be those for whom society and the world let down, didn’t help, and turned away from, forcing them to fend for themselves, to survive in whatever ways possible, even if those ways were criminal.  I feel sorry for them, and I may find it in my heart to be forgiving, but I believe it is important not to forget and not to allow oneself to be open to being hurt and/or injured by them in some way again. 

Through all of this, we still come back to the age-old questions of what is suffering and why do people suffer?  How can we alleviate and/or eliminate pain and suffering?  These are questions that I am unable to answer, and continue to contemplate.  Perhaps you can share your own insights.

References

New World Encyclopedia.  April 21, 2012.  http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Suffering.

“The Aurora Shooting Victims.”  CBS News.  September 15, 2012.  http://www.cbsnews.com/2300-201_162-10013055-2.html?tag=page;next.

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2 thoughts on ““A Spiritual Inquiry: What is Suffering?” (By: Michele Babcock-Nice)

  1. Before I comment on your blog questions, would you answer a question for me. I have the impression you are catholic. Is this correct? Who do you say Jesus is? a holy man? A teacher? Aprophet? Do you own a bible? Read it? How’s that working for you for spiritual insight? EDD

    • Hi Elizabeth, Thanks for your comments and questions. Yes, I am Roman Catholic with some leanings toward Episcopalianism. Jesus embodies many persons for me, including one who is a savior, miracle-worker, is omnipotent, is loving, as well as being a teacher, prophet, and holy man. Yes, I do read the Bible and have found much insight in it. I have taken a bible study class in the past, and am also currently taking one now. That involves some of the basis of my questions, but also that I see so much suffering in the world, and wonder why it occurs and why it seems a necessary part of our humanity. Therefore, I find that psychological explanations about suffering and the alleviation of it are more useful for me than religious or spiritual ones. However, I remain interested in people’s spiritual and other philosophies about suffering. What are your thoughts about it?

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