I have two friends–both beautifully intelligent, funny women who radiate wisdom and kindness, the women I would want to be if I couldn’t be myself–each in the midst of a divorce. Although they bravely continue to step forward to meet each new day, you can see in their eyes that they are suffering, that there is a part of them wondering if they are going to make it, or if their knees might buckle from the strain. You can see them clinging to the thinnest string of faith in themselves and the world around them as everything they previously knew as true is skewed like a trip through a fun house Hall of Mirrors.
I want to take them in my arms and make it all go away. Wave a magic wand until happiness tugs at their hands again. But I know that even a magic wand can’t banish their pain, and that there is little I can offer, for suffering is a dark lonely tunnel that you have to go through on your own.
My friend Seth, who is a pastor, recently gave a sermon about suffering. He asks, “When facing adversity, when feeling empty inside and your blood is thin and there’s no kind of fun or profit to be had, and the trouble is not over in an hour or two, but lasts for months or years, how do we keep seeking God’s presence?”
There were three distinct periods in my life when I was encased in my own little prison of suffering: the last couple years of high school and early college when I wallowed in self-loathing; my late twenties when my heart was tattered and torn; and this past year when physical pain of one kind or another wore away at my joy. In the midst of suffering, despite my best efforts to hang onto the faith that it would someday pass, I was afraid, shaken, and unsure.
But as Emily Dickinson writes in her poem about hope: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers–that perches in the soul–and sings the tune without the words–and never stops–at all–”
Even in the worst of suffering, deep within us is a flicker of light, the melody of a hopeful bird, the presence of God. Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society writes in her book Faith, “Faith is not a commodity we either have or don’t have–it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”
We are faithful during suffering in spite of ourselves.
Salzberg continues, “No matter what we encounter in life, it is faith that enables us to try again, to love again. Even in times of immense suffering, it is faith that enables us to relate to the present moment in such a way that we can go on, we can move forward, instead of becoming lost in resignation or despair. Faith links our present day experience, whether wonderful or terrible, to the underlying pulse of life itself.”
Marshall Ulrich is an ultrarunner and adventurer. In his forties and fifties, he ran across the United States in 52.5 days, climbed Mount Everest, and ran nearly 600 miles through Death Valley. If anyone knows about suffering, it is Ulrich. He describes dealing with hardship as a skill you can improve upon. “You can develop your tolerance and more sophisticated ways of coping. Each new experience gives you a greater confidence and competence in suffering with purpose.”
It is an interesting idea Ulrich proposes: Suffering with purpose. In retrospective, I’ve learned from my own experiences that suffering is a calling card from the universe giving me the opportunity to become more than I was before. Seth told his congregation that suffering, as the Israelites did as they wandered through the desert for forty years following Moses, “opens a field of opportunity, an opportunity to ask questions and find God. As we persevere and endure, the questions change, and we are led forward, to ask different questions, better questions.”
Because I want to support my friends who are getting a divorce, I consult with my friend Jillene. She suffered through the break up of her own marriage years ago, but is now flush with happiness and well-being.
“Divorce is like a death,” she tells me. “It is a death of your idea of the future, of your idea of yourself, of your way of life, of your rituals–essentially of all you know.”
After her divorce, Jillene bought herself a poster that she referred to daily. It was a picture of a girl standing at an intersection with signs pointing down several different roads. One of the signs pointed down a road and read: Not an Option. “I kept that poster up for a long time. My old life, my marriage, that road was no longer an option, and I needed to look at other paths for my journey.” She needed to look for the answers to the new questions brought on by her divorce.
Urlich says that one of the answers he found from questioning suffering is empathy. He writes that his pain “morphed into compassion for people around the world who suffer, not by choice, but by their circumstances.” He says that now, whenever he undertakes a test of endurance, it has to be for a cause, it has to contribute and “mean something.”
In reviewing my own suffering, I see that each experience opened up an area of understanding where previously I had none. Where I was previously blind, now I see. And to see, there must be light. Albert Camus wrote, “In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”
Barbara Fredrickson, author of the book Positivity, calls this development of empathy and perspective “the broadening effect.” When you shift from a negative outlook to a more positive take on a situation, you change your perspective on life, develop more of a world view, and can take in more of the whole picture. “As positivity flows through our hearts, it simultaneously broadens our minds, allowing us to see both the forest and the trees.”
In other words, broadening helps us keep in sight the light at the end of the tunnel of suffering. The light is the hope. As Seth concludes, “The culmination of all this suffering is hope. Hope is built on the strength of our suffering.”
But as we travel through our suffering, Urlich advises us to be gentle with ourselves. “One of the great lessons of suffering may seem paradoxical: you must be kind to yourself. Know when to rest and how much. Know when you can push to the finish. All the while, realize that you have the strength to go farther than you ever have before.”
My two friends are deep in the tunnel of suffering, and the only way out is to keep moving forward through it. Urlich, who is obviously driven, says that you can’t “attack suffering as if it were your competitor; to win this one, you have to accept it.” All my friends can do, all any of us can do, is have faith in our own strength, rest when we need to, and keep our eyes on the light. “Meanwhile,” as Mary Oliver says in her poem “Wild Geese,” “the world goes on.” The kids need new shoes, spring turns into summer, the gas bill needs to be paid, and the dog is begging at the door to be let out.
There is not much I can do to help my two friends on their journey, but in my mind, I take their hands in mine and say: “Listen for the sound of hope whispering in your ear. Ask your questions into the darkness, and know that your heart beats steady with faith. The light ahead will help you see your way forward to where the answers await. Be gentle with yourself as the world goes on and you travel through your suffering.”