My career as a nurse affords me a lot of opportunities to encounter suffering in all of its many forms. Primarily of course I deal with physical suffering, but by its very nature physical suffering leads into any & all other forms of suffering including both spiritual & emotional suffering, particularly as people confront terminal illness & death. As many other nurses will tell you, helping people to work through emotional & spiritual suffering is actually much more challenging than dealing with physical suffering. Additionally I serve as a family service volunteer with a local hospice group which of course brings me even closer to those dealing with their own impending death or the death of a loved one. People are always shocked that I would choose to spend additional time around those at the end of life, but despite my young age I’ve always felt a special connection with those facing the end of their life or the life of a loved one. Unlike many people in the healthcare profession, I’ve never viewed death as the enemy but rather as the inevitable conclusion to life, which sometimes can actually be the respite a person needs when they’ve truly suffered long enough. Indeed I learned very early in my career that there are fates far, far worse than death.
Being surrounded by so much suffering in life can be a bit overwhelming at times, & it certainly leads me to think about my own beliefs & ideas regarding suffering & the uncertainty of life. The older I get & the more experiences I have, the more I’m learning that the only thing of which we can ever really be certain in life is that it is always uncertain. Indeed, the only thing that never changes is that life is always changing.
Many people say that God allows us to suffer so we can grow closer to Him. And that God chooses to heal some people while He also chooses not to heal others (for reasons that we, of course, can’t understand). I just believe that some people get better & some don’t. However, I do think that “mind over matter” can make a huge difference in how people handle both physical & emotional suffering. There may very well be some scientific reasoning for this that we don’t yet fully understand, but regardless I don’t think it changes the fact that having a positive but realistic attitude really can change how we experience this life.
For thousands or perhaps millions of years, humans have struggled with the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I honestly thing it requires more mental gymnastics to believe that God has some elaborate plan we can’t understand to explain our suffering than to simply believe that bad things happen because of scientific reasons such as bad genes or bad timing. But that doesn’t mean that our suffering has to be pointless or that we are alone in this world. I just think the only meaning to suffering (or really anything in life) is the meaning we assign to it. We can choose to allow our suffering to teach us to be a better person & to reach out to others, or we can wallow in misery & cut ourselves off from any happiness that is left to us. The latter response is only natural & perhaps healthy at first. But we do have to move past it or we will be miserable forever. The best way I can sum up my feelings on the meaning of suffering is by sharing a quote from the Buddhist writer Pema Chodron:
“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”
What is boils down to is this: at the end of the day, you & only you are responsible for your choices in life & how you handle the things that happen to you, both good & bad, even those that are beyond your control. This is both terrifying & empowering. It’s terrifying because it forces you to realize that you cannot just blame your parents, the economy, your spouse, your children, your friends, your boss, or anything or anyone else for your own unhappiness or inability to achieve your dreams. But it’s also empowering because it forces you to realize that you & only have the power to change your life. Of course there are always some things beyond our control, but our attitude is never one of them.
I realize this might not be the most upbeat, encouraging post I’ve ever shared but it’s something that’s been close to my heart lately. Trust me, there are days when I really struggle with the unfairness of life. I’ve seen patients younger than me with cancer & other chronic illnesses who have died. And I am only 25! Seeing young people suffering with illnesses that are completely beyond their control is incredibly difficult, regardless of your beliefs. The only conclusion I consistently reach is that life is both beautiful & terrible. And the best thing any of us can do is to appreciate the beautiful parts as much as we can.
With that in mind, when you’re driving down the road & the beautiful Fall leaves are swirling around you, take time to notice how magical that is. If you’re taking a hike, take time to soak up the enchanting, intoxicating smell of the forest. Allow yourself to be caught up in the beauty of music. No matter how hard life gets, don’t close yourself off or refuse to try new things. As cliché as it sounds, live every day as if it were your last so that whenever that day does come, whether today, tomorrow, or fifty years from now, you will be able to face death with peace & without regrets.
Really nice post. Thanks for sharing.
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Thank you. That means a lot.
I was going to write more last night, but I needed to help my kid study for a test. What I wanted to say was that you have written very well about our common, eternal struggle in how to die. Of course, I completely agree with you that it is easier to think that death is not a divinely-inspired event, but that it is just the cause of what we see around us. (Otherwise, we get into the very difficult question of why god plays favorites, what we did wrong, etc.) Death is not easy, but it is part of life, part of living. It’s the price we pay to have a chance to experience life. If I were dying in the hospital, I’d hope to have a nurse like you who understands that we are all each other has–that we have to help people transition out of this world just as we help them into it.
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A nurse’s view on suffering