I taught English for 25 years, and I loved teaching the tragedies of Shakespeare and the great novels of Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. I loved teaching the short stories by Melville, Tolstoy, Poe, Hemingway, James Joyce, Kate Chopin, Raymond Carver, Shirley Jackson, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, and . . . 😬 okay, I’ll stop. These writers are some of the greatest of all time, and students knew that if they were in my classes, they would be exposed to some serious works! I loved it! They, on the other hand, mostly complained about it. 🙄 Reading is boring. It’s too long. It’s too hard! Why do we have to read this? So, in order to please my students, I told them they didn’t have to read, that I would change my curriculum to something that interested them, and I was so thankful that they helped me realize I was asking too much from them. NOT!!! 😏 (I was just checking to see if you were really reading this. 😉)
Yeah, they complained about reading the great classics. But the most common complaint in all those years was that the stories were depressing! None of them had happy endings. And they were right about that one. They were all sad stories! And what was my response to their question of why they all ended in heartache? Simple. Sadness is an emotion everyone relates to. Suffering is universal. It’s what binds humanity together. It’s the one thing we all have in common.
We all suffer. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines suffering as “the state or experience of one that suffers,” to which I say, Duh! 🙄 The second definition simply defines it as “pain,” which still leaves me totally unsatisfied. I like Elisabeth Elliot’s definition better: “Suffering is having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have.”* Now that’s a great definition!
So here is a sad story for you, a brief summary, and certainly not the details, of my most recent suffering. Due to a car wreck, for six months and seventeen days (at this writing) I have been unable to take one step without pain, even with the help of a cane and heavy medication. This disabling state that I find myself in leaves me absolutely exhausted most days. It has affected my energy, my attitude, my weight, my work, my social engagements, my daily chores, and my vacation plans. My surgeons tell me they think—feel pretty sure—they can fix my knee on their first effort! But they also have Plan B ready! And Plan C is in the hopper (but will be used as a very last resort). So. I have been hobbling in agony and awaiting my surgery date (which is next week) and can only look forward to the painful ordeal of recovery after which I am reasonably—but not totally—hopeful the pain will eventually cease. It wears me out just to write it down!
But in the meantime, I have learned a little bit about suffering. Ironically (this will become ironical as you continue to read), I hesitate to write even briefly about my sad story because I know some of you have experienced (and are still experiencing) much greater suffering than I. And I know many of you have an incredibly sad story describing your own journey of pain, but since I happen to be the one writing, I’d like to share just one thing about suffering that I think is extremely important. So here it is: Do not compare your sad story of suffering with others.
Why is that lesson the one that I believe to be so important? Because comparing your sad story of suffering will either cause you to minimize, disregard, and even dismiss your pain as not as significant as your fellow sufferer’s pain or it will cause your fellow sufferer to minimize, disregard, and dismiss his pain as not as significant as yours. When the truth is, although there certainly are degrees of suffering and pain, suffering is still suffering and pain is always painful. Comparing suffering leads many people to offer these “encouraging” words: It could be worse! But really—how is this helpful? It causes the one suffering to feel bad about mentioning their very real pain. Of course, it could be worse! And the one suffering is usually thinking Yeah, and it could be a lot better, too! Sharing our sad stories too often leads to comparing our sad stories. However, it is important to share sad stories! Suffering needs to be shared because it is heavy. And we who suffer also need to share the suffering load of others. It’s one of the main purposes of our afflictions—that we might “be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”1 We, who have suffered, are called to comfort others. The act of it helps us to begin to see the reason for our own suffering.
That being said, we should be very careful with whom we share the details of our sad stories because once the sharing starts, comparing is almost inevitable. There is always someone who has suffered more than you have. And after hearing someone else’s horrible story of pain and suffering, you might feel ashamed that you even brought up your story because it pales in comparison. You might conclude that you just need to get over your pain and suffering and stop whining about it! And that is mostly an incorrect conclusion about our suffering. And, by the way, I have learned that most people love to compare their sad story with yours, even if you don’t ask them to! They honestly believe that you need to hear their story and will lure you into a competitive conversation! You think you’ve suffered? Let me tell you my story! Or My sister’s husband’s uncle suffered exactly the same thing as you did and he didn’t have any problems recovering! And that’s why sharing sad stories is so tricky.
Therefore, even though I may choose to withhold the details of my sad story with most people because I really do not want to compare my pain with theirs, what do you do with those who feel compelled to tell you all about their suffering? (And here is the backdoor lesson for our lesson.) You need to listen to those sad stories with both ears and all your attention. You need to sympathize with those sufferers with all your soul. You need to love those well-meaning story tellers with all your heart. And if their suffering is currently ongoing, you need to listen for clues as to how you could alleviate their suffering. Never underestimate the power of a simple note or word of encouragement! Their suffering is real. Their story is important. They are probably . . . probably telling their sad story because they think it will make you feel better somehow. And if they ask you about the details of your sad story—which they might get around to—my advice is to share very little. Because most people just can’t help comparing their suffering with yours. And you never want them to question the gravity of their own suffering. It is so true: minor surgery is surgery on someone else!
That being said, it is important for you to share the details of your suffering with one other person—maybe two—for one reason: We all need to be comforted by others. No one is exempt from this—not even you! Or me! But choose the person with whom you share the details of your suffering very carefully. It needs to be someone who will not minimize nor amplify your sad story. It needs to be someone who loves you genuinely and will walk beside you no matter how long your suffering takes. And that second part is probably the most important one because most people will grow weary with your suffering if you do not recover quickly!
So, if you are looking for one thing to share with those who share their suffering with you, share this: As believers we are to eventually learn to “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”2 So . . . suffering leads to hope! 😀 That’s great news! But, of course, this does not occur without learning the hard and long and painful lessons of endurance and character first.
If you happen to choose me as one of those rare people with whom you entrust the details of your sad story of suffering, I would be honored. Tell me all about it. Together we can help each other with that endurance and character stuff we will have to go through before we see the hope of it all.
In the meantime, if you need ideas for some good reading, let me know! 😉
12 Corinthians 1:4 2Romans 5:3-4 *“The Terrible Truth.” Suffering Is Never for Nothing, by Elisabeth Elliot and Joni Eareckson Tada, B & H Publishing Group, 2019, p. 9.