By Reverend Rebecca Bryan
“Go ahead. Let it out, honey. I am not afraid of your pain.”
It had been six months since my last drink. Twenty–five Friday evenings without any red wine. My emotions were as present as I had ever felt them. It felt like I was going to crawl out of my skin.
I called my friend out of desperation. I was not so accustomed to asking for help at that point in my life. But I could not carry this pain alone. It needed to be held, witnessed — loved, if you will. Without such care, I would surely drink again or find some other means of anesthetizing myself.
My friend responded to me with exactly what I needed: unconditional love, unwavering presence, and no judgment. I could feel it over the telephone line, especially when she said, “I am not afraid of your pain.” No one had ever said that to me before.
That experience changed me. I had been loved, witnessed, and held just as I was. My friend did not attempt to fix, pity, or deny my pain.
“You may forget with whom you laughed, but you will never forget with whom you wept,” wrote Khalil Gibran.
“I am not afraid of your pain.”
I have said those same words many times over the ensuing years . . .
. . . to the transgender woman, near her death, who wanted to know if she was forgiven. “I am not afraid of your pain.”
. . . to the couple who asked if I would bless their babies before they were born, knowing they were likely to die during birth. “I am not afraid of your pain.”
. . . to a family anguished over the change in their teenage son’s behavior and his near fatal overdose. “I am not afraid of your pain.”
“Isn’t it depressing, spending so much time working with people during their difficulties in life?” my daughter once asked me. “No,” I answered. “I call it being with people in the underside of the belly. It’s a place I’m quite comfortable with. I’ve met angels in human skin there, people who are unguarded, open, and real. They’ve taught me a lot including what you might fear when you are sick, what you often think about before you die, and what matters most in life. They are some of my biggest teachers, and for that I am immensely grateful.”
Suffering, I’ve learned, is not something we are all comfortable with. I’ve come to understand that not everyone identifies with suffering or shares my love of being in the underside of the belly. I’ve heard a lot about suffering from people:
Suffering is something other people experience.
The concept of suffering reminds me of Christian teachings in which we are to “suffer for our sins.”
Whenever I got sad, my parents told me to “Think of the starving children in Africa,” who had it so much worse than I did.
I wonder sometimes if it is “un-American” to identify with suffering. Many of us were taught that it is selfish to think we suffer when we are so privileged or taught that the goal in life is to not suffer. It seems like we may be comfortable talking about emotional pain, loss, or grief, but not suffering.
Is suffering the same as pain?
“I haven’t touched a human being in so long,” someone said on the news the other night, referring to the experience of self-quarantine. Is that suffering?
The question I hear most frequently on this topic of suffering is “Can I be joyful in the face of suffering? Is it wrong to be happy when there is so much suffering in the world?”
Perhaps is best at this point for me to define what I mean by suffering. Suffering, as I’m using it today, is part of the human condition. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines suffering as “to feel or endure pain, illness, or injury.”
You could replace the word suffering with grief, insecurity, or loss. It is a feeling or state of being wherein we are not free, emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes physically. When we suffer, we know there are things happening beyond our control, even as we recognize what we can control. When we love, we risk suffering. The Buddha taught that you will not find a person’s life that doesn’t include suffering, at some point.
Understanding suffering and knowing how to relate to it is important, whether you have suffered in the past, are currently suffering, love someone who is suffering, or all three. We will all witness and experience suffering, or pain, at some point in our lives. Most of us will experience it many times.
World religions deal with suffering differently. Buddhism understands enlightenment as the end of suffering, with bodhisattvas being people who return to earth time and again until all people are free from suffering. Hinduism teaches that we reincarnate as many times as necessary until we have sufficient grace to dissolve into energy that is God. Christianity has a range of responses to suffering from understanding suffering as punishment for our sins to seeing it as a call for utmost faith in the will of God.
As a liberal religion, we have less trouble understanding why suffering happens. William Murry in his book A Faith for All Seasons writes that Unitarian Universalists understand suffering to be a combination of the results of human freedom, the inhumanity of people toward one another, and the interconnectedness of the universe and randomness.
Understanding the why of things, however, does not teach us how to live with suffering. How do we learn to not be afraid of pain, our own and others? And why does it matter?
It matters because living into our Unitarian Universalist principles and our Affirmation of Faith calls us to do so. “Love is the doctrine of this church. Service its prayer.” We say those words each week, as people have been doing in our sanctuary for thirty-nine years. To love is to encounter suffering as well as joy. To serve is to encounter suffering as well as to help find meaning in life.
Our principles articulate our promises to employ reason with faith, to honor and protect the interdependent web of life, and to work for justice and compassion in all human relations. Reason and science tell us there is suffering. The world needs us to be compassionate, caring, engaged people who are able to feel its pain. That world may be your family, our church community, or the wider world.
In my life I’ve learned to be comfortable with pain largely by using Buddhist and humanist practices. I think of it as a circle.
At the top of the circle is an experience of suffering. You lose your job. You don’t know when you will see your grandchildren again. The first stop on the circular journey is to remember that this suffering will end. Everything changes. This too shall change.
Next, I need to remember that I am not unique or alone. At the very moment I am suffering, there are millions of other people suffering, many for the same reasons I am suffering.
The third stop on the circle is to stay. Feel my feelings so I do not numb out to all of life or become stuck in this suffering. Stay in my body. Stay with the experience. Stay connected to myself and others. Stay — that simple and that difficult. Many of us are not taught how to stay. We are taught to run, fight, deny.
Rounding the top of the circle I realize that it will happen again. Pain will happen. It may be the cycle of the same issue at a deeper level or a new issue. But suffering will come again, not because I’m doing anything wrong, but because it is part of life.
And when it does come, I will remember that it will pass. I am not alone. And perhaps most important, I am more than my suffering.
When I do those things, I can surrender to what is. Suffering loses its power over me. I can better choose how to respond to what is happening. Catastrophic thinking has less space. I can become curious, look for learning opportunities, and feel the preciousness of life.
This is the deep dive and the dance that I think we need to be brave enough to have out loud — naming and sharing suffering so that we all become stronger, more compassionate, and more open to what life offers.
I answer “yes” to the question “Do we have the right to be joyful in the face of suffering?” We must experience joy to give us the staying power and perspective that suffering requires. As deeply as it hurts is as deeply as we are called to love and choose a life of meaning.
We are more than our suffering. My prayer is that you always remember that. We are so much more than our suffering.
Questions to ponder, discuss and hold…
Where and how do you experience relief during times of suffering?
What reminds you that you are more than the suffering you are experiencing?
Can you look back at suffering in your past with compassion? What did you learn from it, and what would you do differently today?