I’ve never been a fan of suffering during my life. I’m ashamed to say that I have a track record of trying to avoid it as much as possible, and would suggest that this fear based tendency is a key factor in my history of substance, as well as other types of dependency.
This resistance towards suffering and adversity is effectively an attempt to avoid or control life. As most things in life beyond me are outside of my control, this tendency is futile. The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is “all life is suffering.” Suffering is an inevitable part of life, and in trying to avoid it I have suffered much more than I needed to, as well as stifling maturity in the process. The substitutes we choose to avoid suffering, in the longer term, usually create greater suffering than if we had honestly faced our adversity in the first place.
My tendency to resist inevitable suffering is often reflected in my negative response to it. Resentment, hostility, self-pity, anxiety and depression in the face of suffering have unfortunately been very familiar to me. Why is this tendency so? A lack of self-love and deep insecurity seems to be the culprit, according to the wise. A love of self, and therefore a commitment towards life and growth (a desire to self-actualize) seems to be the answer then – to my allergy to suffering.
How do I learn self-love? I need help from others to show me the way, through their example of acceptance, compassion and empathy. I can engage in this type of relationship through community or fellowship. I can also search for a healing therapist. A part of my commitment to self-love is developing a practice of moral and spiritual virtue in order to grow. Why is this so? To face suffering effectively I need a strong, compassionate and positive character, and mine has a few “defects” (or, put more kindly, ‘defenses’) as we like to say in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Although we may not choose to suffer, we can choose how we respond to it to a certain degree. The greater my moral virtue, my strength of character and self-compassion, the more likely I am to respond to suffering and adversity in an accepting and positive way. A key attitude in constructively dealing with life’s hardships is to look for the meaning and purpose in one’s suffering – to see the value in it. (1)
Often suffering is needed for us to develop a strong and virtuous character. For example, we require frustration and things we don’t like in order to practice acceptance, patience and tolerance. We wouldn’t grow and mature as human beings without suffering and adversity in life. To quote the well known philosophical aphorism, “what does not kill me makes me stronger.”
This saying also suggests that suffering can destroy a person. Clearly physical illness can kill us, despite our best efforts to survive, but even in this respect a positive mental attitude and strong character can make a difference in how well one faces illness and death. Buddhist monks, for example, place great emphasis on facing illness and death well, for both spiritual and personal growth reasons.
Nietzsche’s aphorism can also be understood in terms of being destroyed psychologically and emotionally by our suffering. If we are unable to respond to our suffering positively, or see meaning and purpose in it, we will then be weakened or damaged by it. See Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’
In suggesting that a person needs a positive attitude, a strong and virtuous character in order to face suffering and adversity well, and therefore grow in the process, many in recovery from addiction would seem to be disadvantaged. The book ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (aka Big Book, 3rd edition, p.62) suggests that the alcoholic is an exceptionally self-centred and fearful human being, prone to resentment, self-delusion and self-pity. This character description unfortunately rings true for me, and is not a good basis for dealing with life well. In my experience, while not unique to alcoholics these neurotic traits are very common for many in the Fellowship of AA.
Recovering alcoholics often require help with developing a positive mental outlook, emotional balance and a virtuous character. This is why I, for one, need a fellowship and program of recovery based upon moral and spiritual principles, in my efforts to face life and its inherent suffering well.
Despite my efforts to avoid and resist suffering I have still encountered my fair share of it – mainly in the forms of chronic physical and mental/emotional Illness. The AA Fellowship and Twelve Step program have greatly helped me in developing an accepting and positive attitude towards my difficulties, and still continues to do so. AA’s serenity prayer is a particularly helpful summary of the humble and stoic attitude I need to practice in facing life and its problems. Acceptance rather than resistance of things beyond my control is vitally important in my efforts to grow, and in facing life with courage and wisdom.
Maybe the most valuable lesson we can learn from suffering and adversity in life is humility. The suffering of our addiction has the power to make us turn outward in search of support and strength beyond our own. It can also coerce us inwardly towards our core in a search for spiritual strength and hope.
Suffering has the power to break the arrogance of our ego, its illusions of control and self-sufficiency. It forces us to ask for help and makes us realise that we are dependent beings in need of support and strength beyond ourselves.
The Spiritual Value of Suffering
The power suffering has to break one’s ego often seems to be a fundamental aspect of a spiritual awakening or experience; or psychic shift if you prefer. Those in the AA Fellowship will be familiar with this phenomenon, which is also supported by present day research. (2)
We often radically change in our outlook, behavior and feeling in response to intense suffering. Many previously self-centred, hedonistic and materially focused people are transformed by adversity into living a life that’s focused upon helping others. Their life takes on new meaning and purpose beyond themselves.
St Francis of Assisi was a classic example of this type of spiritual conversion. His experiences of war, imprisonment and serious illness led to a dramatic change in his personality and lifestyle. St Francis became known for renouncing his wealth, living among and serving the poor, which included looking after those suffering from leprosy.
Those of us in recovery have experienced the suffering of addiction and our broken ego, which leads us to adopt new values for living often resulting in a very different way of life. Step Twelve of the AA program encourages this change in attitude to a life focused upon service to others. This new focus beyond ourselves brings unexpected benefits for our lives, which includes reducing our own suffering, or at least lessening our awareness of it as we are taken out of self.
While I’m still not a fan of suffering and adversity in life, I can see the inevitable reality of it and the futility of trying to avoid or control it. When I attempt to do this, I am often just increasing my suffering and getting in the way of my “opportunity for growth”. Self-love, acceptance, courage and wisdom are my way forward in life from now on; if I want to grow more and suffer less.
To get the most from my life I will do well to remember some wise words; to turn inwards when facing suffering and to ask for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.