The Gift of Suffering

Photo by  Larisa-K

Photo by Larisa-K

Monday was a momentous day for me. My husband, who has been working on his PhD for NINE YEARS ended this long journey by defending his dissertation and received his doctorate in Philosophy, Religion and Theology. When I shared this glorious news on social media, I wrote: “The PhD is not a victory march, it’s a heavy crawl, leaving behind a trail of tears, sweat and blood from the palms and knees. But boy, does it ever resound a booming, guttural and broken hallelujah.”

As my adaptation of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” reveals, this process was far from easy for my husband and for our entire family. There were several times he considered quitting and I considered that possibility with him as well. But there was something within me that knew he needed to stick with it and that he would, eventually make it.

He wouldn’t make it out the same person, by no means. And he would certainly be put through the fire. But I knew this was his quest to take and he needed to take it to become who he is meant to become.

The left photo is the title of the dissertation. The middle shows the length (315 pages!). The final photo is of James fellow colleagues (with their spouses and kids) who have either completed the program or are about to. We gathered after his defense to celebrate with food and drinks.

Palm Sunday is on my mind because I’m preaching this upcoming Sunday. Palm Sunday has always been so weird to me because most churches make it a celebratory event with palms, ushering in Jesus as in a royal procession. It’s happy and light but the truth is, Jesus is marching towards his crucifixion. 

And yet, he doesn’t avoid or resist his path. I mean, for sure he does actually pray to God to “take this cup of suffering away” but he surrenders to the suffering and trusts there’s a bigger story unraveling.

By no means am I one who glorifies suffering. But I am one who believes that every person faces her own set of suffering experiences in her lifetime. Each set of experiences looks different from person to person, which is why I always tell my congregants, never to compare your suffering with others. Though somebody else’s life may look rosy and cheerful on the outside, there is always more to the story.

I believe there are two ways we can approach our suffering. That is, the suffering that comes to us, not the suffering one seeks out. The latter can be avoided but the former contains the seeds of our blossoming. The two ways we can approaching the former suffering is by avoiding and resisting or by being willing to be transformed by the experience. We will not know how we will be transformed when we enter into the crucible. And we certainly will not know where that experience will lead. But we trust and stay faithful to the experience instead of turning on the TV and numbing ourselves to the pain.

I once told a former spiritual director of mine how wise she was and how I, too, wanted to be so wise one day. She responded, bluntly but with much love, do you think this wisdom came for free? It was bought with the pain of my experiences. I chose to die to my ego and be reborn.

As a minister, I have the privilege of interacting closely with people who are double and triple my age. This exposure has shattered many of my stereotypes about the elderly, which I share in my essay, “What Do 90-Somethings Regret Most?” One of the stereotypes I had, which turned out not to be true, was that people automatically get wiser as they age. I learned that hard life experiences actually can have two opposite effects, it can mature us and transform us or it can harden us, make us more set in our ways and more senile. 

My husband is not the same person he was when he started this journey. He is more humble, keenly aware of his strengths and his weaknesses. He is more compassionate towards others who are struggling. He is better with time management and deactivating his limiting beliefs and mental blocks. His PhD, as painful as it was sometimes, ended up being a gift in disguise as it transformed him in ways that only the PhD process could.

Parenthood, losing a loved one, getting diagnosed with an illness, marriage, divorce, moving—these are all possible paths of suffering we are invited to take. We do not need to seek out our suffering. Our suffering, which is as particular as our fingerprints, will be set before us in due time.

What would it look like for you to be faithful to the suffering you are given without running away, resisting or distracting yourself? Could it be a gift in disguise if you were willing to go on through the crucible? What would it look like for you to die to your ego in the process and trust that a greater wisdom and maturity could be born from the experience?