By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
“Whatever the sorrow, whatever the concern, whatever the pain and anguish, look for a way to turn it to beneficial use- perhaps in helping others to avoid the same problems, or perhaps by developing a greater insight into the feelings of others who are struggling in a similar way.” – Howard W. Hunter, respected theologian.
“Why me?” This ubiquitous cry of the suffering displays an urgent craving for answers. We try desperately to find reasons for our pain, the assumption being that purpose will help us to endure our sorrows, while meaninglessness makes them unbearable. The answers you find depend largely on what you believe, but there is a universal usefulness for our misery: everything we suffer empowers us to help others.
“Our Suffering Empowers Us to Help Others”
Those best qualified to assist a suffering soul are those who have passed through similar ordeals. I had a hard time in my 20’s. Single life was rough on me: I wanted nothing more than to marry and start a family but instead got years of loneliness and self-doubt. My mother passed away unexpectedly, dropping my family into grief and turmoil. When my father remarried we had to adjust to life as a blended family. What seemed, at that point, like chaos was actually preparation. I now know how to empathize with, and lift, clients and friends who struggle with loneliness, bereavement, and the process of forming a step-family. These are things I could not have fully known if not for my own experience.
Of course the experiences of no two people are exactly alike; for that reason it’s usually a mistake to say “I know how you feel.” Nevertheless, experiencing pain can help us to counsel people looking for guidance. Even if we’ve no advice to give, simply knowing that someone cares and understands is often enough to bring comfort and strength.
Suffering Yields Wisdom
If we suffer because of the consequences of poor choices, that is also an opportunity in disguise. We can lift a voice of warning against addiction, abuse, impulsiveness, crime, and a variety of other choices, speaking from experience and influencing others to avoid our mistakes. In the case of those who feel they’ve wandered too far for redemption, our journey from darkness to light can serve as a template for them to make things right.
Our pain also helps us to be more compassionate and tenderhearted towards others who suffer, which in turn leads to some of the most joyous and satisfying relationships of our lives. One summer, after a particularly painful breakup and the sudden death of a friend, I sought to lighten my sorrows by lightening those of others and began volunteering at a nursing home. Once or twice a week I visited with people whose health was failing, who’d lost their spouse, and who didn’t see much of their family or friends. We’d play cards, watch movies, and share stories from our lives. These became some of my most cherished friendships, and it helped me to find my happiness again.
There are a myriad of possible reasons why we suffer, but the one that always applies is that our misery empowers us, if we let it, to lift one another, to grow together, and to experience joy with one another. If you’re lonely, befriend and uplift others who are lonely. If you’re sick, let other afflicted persons know that they’re not alone. If you’ve made poor choices, use your experience to warn others or let them know that hope isn’t lost. Sometimes the only purpose our misery has is the one that we assign to it. Choose to let yours make you a force for good in the life of someone else; it’ll help you both to heal.