Is suffering necessary?
Is suffering redemptive?
The human experience is that suffering is inevitable. We have all experienced pain and suffering, from illness or injury, or the indignities of aging, from failure and setbacks in school or in work, from community disasters, from losses of family and friends. Our suffering is not all the same, but we all experience at least the everyday suffering of things gone wrong.
Human beings are remarkably resilient. Resiliency is that ability to cope with failures and disasters large and small, to confront them, to move through them and emerge from them, often in positive ways. We know that resiliency is an essential skill for navigating adult life, and most of us learn the skills, usually through bitter experience.
Resiliency has become a hot topic among educators. We know that it’s essential for young people, as they grow up, to develop these skills, and most young people are able to do that. But in recent years there has been an increasing number of young people, from adolescents to young adults, who don’t seem to be able to cope with even modest personal challenges, who seem overwhelmed by setbacks and disappointments. In my work with high school students at school we have seen an increasing number of young people experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, or depression that prevents them from functioning in daily life. Why is this? And how do young people develop the ability to bounce back from personal challenges?
Resiliency seems to be like a muscle – it needs to be constantly exercised in order to gain strength. We all want to protect our children from terrible things happening to them, but the paradox is that when we as adults intervene too frequently or forcefully in their lives, we may be preventing them from developing the resiliency they need. When kids get into trouble and parents step in to fix the problem for them, when students fail at school and parents intercede with teachers or principals on their behalf, when young people experience disastrous social relationships, and adults try to manage that, we are probably doing our children no favors and may actually be keeping them from learning the hard lessons and gaining the confidence in themselves that they need to be mature, resilient adults.
What does resiliency look like? What are the skills we need to learn? Resilient people are able to draw on people around them to provide support and encouragement – not people who will solve their problems, but who will stand beside them and encourage them to solve their own problems. Resilient people are flexible and are able to adapt to changed circumstances, to alter their course when they face a dead end. “My major didn’t work out, so I switched to a different one.” “This relationship wasn’t going anywhere, so I re-thought my priorities and made a change.” “I lost my job, so I decided to pursue a completely different career.”
And resilient people are able to re-write their life narratives in ways that give them a sense of meaning and purpose. We all have a life narrative, a story about our own lives that gives our lives a sense of coherence and ideally a sense of meaning. So that our story is not just “This happened and then this happened and then this happened,” but more like “this happened, and it was hard, but it set me on a new path that has been very fulfilling.” For example, “I had a hard time my freshman year in college and decided to drop out. I spent a year working in the wilderness and came back from that with a new sense of what I wanted to do with my life.” We are constantly revising our life stories, as new things happen to us and as we make new life choices, and resilient people are able to find meaning even in the sharpest setbacks and failures, giving them strength to move forward in life.
This, I think, is exactly what Jesus is doing with his disciples – trying to instill in them the skills to cope with failure. The disciples are going up to Jerusalem with Jesus full of the expectation that this will be a moment of triumph. God’s reign is going to be established and Jesus will make it happen. When Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer and die,” he’s telling them it’s not going to be like that. He is going to suffer and die because he is human, and it is the lot of all humans to suffer and die – there’s no escape from that for any of them. When he tells them to pick up their cross, he’s telling them that by confronting the suffering that is to come, they will find the purpose that God has for them – if they accept it and deal with it, they will find meaning in it. God will show them the way.
Christianity is a very resilient religion. Think about it: Jesus’s followers expected imminent triumph and instead Jesus was arrested, tortured and executed, and his followers were scattered. That should have destroyed the Jesus movement, but somehow they managed to carry on. The found strength in their community and in supporting one another, they were able to re-frame their mission – how and why they were going to move forward. And most importantly, they rewrote their narrative. They took the cross – a symbol of defeat and death – and they made it into a symbol of hope and new life. And Christians have been doing the same ever since.
I came to my school, OES, thirty years ago. Just before I arrived the school had experienced a catastrophic disaster, when nine members of the school, both students and faculty, were killed in a mountaineering accident on Mount Hood. It could have meant the end of the school, but somehow it survived. People found strength and comfort in one another, not to make the pain and loss disappear, but to bear the pain together. And the school rewrote its own narrative, to incorporate that terrible loss and to reshape the school’s mission to one of care for the whole student and service to the larger community, which had offered the school care in a time of crisis.
I think the same kind of thing is happening now in South Florida. In the midst of the incredible pain and grief of this human catastrophe, the community is finding ways to be resilient. They are drawing together to support one another. They are bearing one another’s pain. And they are rewriting their narrative by taking on a new mission: working together with others to make change in our society to stop the violence associated with guns. In the process they are giving themselves hope in the midst of despair and a sense of meaning and purpose, so that the loss of those children will not have been in vain. We don’t know how that will come out, but it’s a sign of great hope.
How do we cope with suffering? How do we develop those skills of resiliency, as individuals and as a community? We commit to supporting one another when we are in pain. We practice compassion, whose root meaning is to “suffer with,” for those in crisis. When we confront failure, we adapt to new circumstances. If our mission is failing, we don’t dwell on that failure but seek out new ways to move forward. And we continue to rewrite our life narratives, as individuals and as a community, to find new meaning and purpose in the midst of defeat and failure. We take up our own cross, confronting hardship and pain directly and finding in it God’s purpose for us, so that the cross of defeat and death becomes the cross of hope and new life.