I thought that for my first post I would share some recent thoughts on suffering. It seems especially apropos for my first post because everyone who reads this and every subsequent of my posts will experience that most exquisitely uncomfortable of sensations.
Those who know me personally can attest that I am not a small man. Well, it goes beyond that, I am rather heavy. In any case, I decided that I didn’t want to be as heavy anymore, and lent was coming up, so I decided to go on a (manly!) diet. Now, a month and a half later, and thirty-five pounds lighter, I have gained some insight into suffering that I didn’t have before, and I will now make you read about it. I promise that this post will be much more abstract and philosophical from here on out.
When you first begin to suffer, your mind focuses on the suffering until it becomes your entire life. You think that your whole world revolves around hunger (or whatever). Enter the first lesson: that’s what hell is like. Hell is the eternal focusing on the mental anguish of your whole existence. You are focused on the one thing that you can’t have – GOD. If not being able to eat what or how much you want can be so miserable, think how much greater that despair will be if God is missing from your soul.
While the first thing you notice about suffering is how unpleasant it is, the first thing you learn about suffering is how, after a while, the unpleasantness just becomes a fact of life. Here is the second lesson. Man is not in need of twizzlers or pizza (this is not the case with God, you always need Him). The realization that momentary physical pleasure has no bearing on your happiness, even in the short term, is a great one. Five minutes after the experience of that pleasure has worn off, your life has not changed a bit. You are still happy or sad because of the state of the things that really matter – God, family, country, your health, and of course, your soul. These things are sine qua non of your life, and losing them goes beyond not being able to eat a cupcake now and again. And there is the third lesson of suffering – it strips away the vain pleasures of life to leave bare the things which actually matter. Let me tell you that focus is a great gift.
An extension of this last point is not a lesson, but an effect. Suffering burns away imperfections in your character and soul. Everyone has them, those little weak spots that we constantly act on despite knowing they are wrong. One of the biggest ones is of course sexual impurity, but there is also unkind or flippant comments, gossip, and a whole host of minor sins that we commit on a daily basis almost unthinkingly, so often do we act on them. Suffering brings about a greater awareness of self, and, as it is dependent on resisting little temptations, it is extremely valuable in teaching us how to not give in to our character flaws. If one can consistently defeat those flows, they can eventually be erased or significantly mitigated.
Paradoxically, one of the greatest lessons of suffering is how unimportant it is. That is to say, once it has become a fact of life, suffering becomes a momentarily inconvenient sensation that must be born until it goes away. Hunger and deprivation can last a few hours or a few days, but if you can persevere through that suffering then it no longer matters. With that in mind, endeavors which before seemed impossible because of the suffering involved in the pursuit – such as losing weight, in my case – are suddenly no longer frightening.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, or, at least, more pedantic, I think it is true that humans only grow through adversity. It is only through challenging and struggling and suffering that we can know who we are and what matters to us. If your life is desolate because you can’t have cake everyday, then perhaps you have focused on the wrong things in life. If you find that you don’t need cake, but thought you did, then cake doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore. In either case, you have learned something about yourself which you can use to fix your life and be happier that you hadn’t known before because you hadn’t challenged yourself. For many people, this growth usually comes from events out of their control which adversely effect them, which is fine. However, in a comfortable country such as ours, such events have become increasingly infrequent. (That may be why so many people seem so immature) That infrequency obligates us to seek out our own opportunities to suffer.
Whereas having to persevere through imposed deprivation is glorious, choosing to suffer I think is even more noble. Christ was God. He could have whipped the cross off his back and flung it across the ocean to smack the Emperor right on his face, and then proceeded to heal all of His wounds and punish those responsible for his unjust suffering. However, knowing its result, he chose His path and stuck with it. (Look, I know that you could say that suffering was imposed on Him and that he accepted it, meaning that suffering imposed but joyfully accepted is greater than suffering elected. However, I would say He knew how the whole thing would turn out, and did it anyway, which is effectively like choosing suffering.) Choosing to suffer means acknowledging your own imperfection, which is humbling, and seeking to mitigate it, which is pious. Understanding that it is going to suck, and choosing to do it anyway is mature and maturing.
So, in conclusion, I would heartily recommend self-flagellation.
(Please, don’t actually do that.)