Why Do We Suffer in Silence?

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There’s a natural tendency in us to seek pleasure and to avoid suffering.  We have to instruct our mind that suffering can sometimes be very helpful.  We can even speak of “the goodness of suffering.”  Thanks to the suffering, we begin to understand.  And because we understand, we can accept, we can love.  Without understanding and love there cannot be any happiness.  So suffering has to do with happiness.  We should not be afraid of suffering.  We should be able to hold our suffering and look deeply into it, hold it tenderly and learn from it.  We need to know that we can learn from suffering.  The goodness of suffering is something real.  Without suffering there cannot be happiness…So if you know how to suffer, suffering is okay.  And the moment you have that attitude, you don’t suffer much anymore.

Thich Naht Hanh

The research is clear.  Guiding children to see the merit of effort over perfection will have a positive effect on their relationship to learning.  Part of this involves developing an environment in which young people are willing and able to share their struggles, embrace them, and understand that risk-taking and failure are all a part of this important process.  It has become increasingly apparent to me, however, that our larger society is sorely unprepared to encourage and accept this kind of mentality.

“…if you know how to suffer, suffering is okay.”

This is what we’re missing.  As a society, we don’t know how to suffer.  Rather than working to embrace our struggles as a learning experience, many of us have been taught to stuff them down and out of sight.   Because of that,  we often lack the tools to deal with our own problems (so we suffer even more), and lack compassion for the suffering of others.  When a person feels that he will not receive support, he is more than likely going to keep his suffering to himself.  Not only is this isolating but it can potentially stunt his ability to learn from whatever difficult circumstance he faces.

I know not everybody is going to agree with me on this, but it is my firm belief that we need to start putting stuff out there.  I am what many people would probably consider an “over-sharer”, and I acknowledge that some people are more private than others, but I think it begs the question: Why do we keep our struggles, the things that cause us to suffer, such a secret?

We’re afraid of judgement, and we’re afraid of making people uncomfortable.  This is completely valid, because you know what?  Many people really don’t know what to say to someone who’s having a difficult time.  So, we need to practice.  Some people are going to have to be brave so that we, as a society, can develop some skills.  And when it comes down to it, if you really think about the times you’ve felt the most connected to people, it’s likely when you’ve shared something difficult and you felt validated and heard.  There’s a freedom in that release.

This is the basis of human connection.  The willingness of people to come together over shared struggles, or suffering, allows for learning, growth, and change.  There’s no use pretending that our lives are perfect; what an exhausting cycle of mask-wearing.  Social media generally perpetuates this keeping up of appearances, but in some cases it’s beginning to provide forums for people to come together and support one another through things like natural disasters, loss, and illness.

I recently came across this article by Pamela Katz Ressler.  It’s written in response to an op-ed piece by Bill Keller on Lisa Bonchek Adams’ choice to use social media as a forum to share, with great detail, her experiences living with stage IV breast cancer.  Keller’s piece has sparked something of a debate over the appropriateness of the choice that Adams has made to share so much.  In her article, Ressler takes a striking quote from the writings of Dr. Rita Charon, director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University:

“These divides between the sick and the well are unspeakably wide. Leveraged open by shame, rage, loss, and fear, these chasms can be unbridgeable. And yet, to get better, the patient needs to feel included among those who are not ill. The sick person needs to continue to be, somehow, the self he or she was before illness struck. For the sick patient to accept the care of well strangers, those strangers have to form a link, a passage between the sick and the healthy who tender care.”

Dr. Charon’s words are supported by research that suggests that the sharing of these personal stories of illness through social media and blogging can increase the perceived quality of life for a patient.  This is not surprising, nor can it possibly be limited to those who are sick.  We are social beings; most of us crave acceptance and community, as much as some of us may try to deny it.  It’s time to bridge the chasms that are created by the aforementioned shame, rage, loss, and fear.

I’m of the age now where many of my peers have young children, or are in the process of starting families.  It’s staggering to me how secretive women are still expected to be about the whole process. Women and couples are encouraged to keep pregnancy hush-hush for the first trimester in case it turns out the pregnancy isn’t actually viable.  But what if we didn’t keep it a secret?  What if we openly acknowledged that miscarriage is a real possibility and learned how to talk about it, to support the many women and couples who have gone through this painful loss?  I know that everyone deals with loss in his or her own way, and I’m certainly not suggesting that everybody has to be open about such a personal thing, but there have been so many times that I’ve heard women say that they avoid sharing their experience for fear of creating an awkward situation.  What a shame.  This goes for infertility, stillbirth, labor and delivery, and everything after.  These are family issues, not just women’s issues, and we’d all be better off if silence and isolation could be replaced by compassion and understanding.

This discomfort with suffering has some very real implications for a country that has witnessed so much loss at the hands of mental illness; most notably the shooting at Sandy Hook.  In response to this horrific tragedy, 60 Minutes began working on a piece addressing the lack of support, both institutional and personal, that is available for the youth in our country who suffer form mental illness.  Understandably, the producers had a difficult time getting parents to agree to an interview:

“Oriana and Michael searched the country, talked to any number of people who declined to be interviewed,” says Pelley. “They were able to find several people, including Creigh Deeds, who found themselves in a position of wanting to tell the country about this problem so passionately that they were able to overcome, frankly, the embarrassment or the stigma of appearing on national television to talk about mental illness.”

During the segment, one mother talked about the difference in how people treat a physical malady versus a mental illness.  When her 13-year-old daughter broke her leg, her church and neighbors organized casserole deliveries and the family was inundated with help and well-wishes.  However, when that same daughter had been committed to a psychiatric ward for two months?  No casseroles.  This is clearly not because people are heartless. However, the discomfort and subsequent reluctance to provide support for these individuals and their families can lead to violent acts and senseless deaths.

The spectrum of human suffering is vast, and we will always suffer to varying degrees.  Most of us are lucky to have enough food, our health, and a roof over our heads.  I’m in no way advocating for an increase in whining and complaining over “first world problems”.  Rather, that we begin to accept and own what we’re legitimately struggling with.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve somewhat nervously shared a personal issue only to be met with the surprising, “I’ve been through something so similar.  I’ve never told ANYBODY.”  The relief is felt on both sides.

To a child, putting her hand up to say, “I really don’t understand how you solved that math problem“, can feel as scary as it would be for an adult to matter-of-factly state that she’s struggling in her marriage.  And just as a child who is having difficulty with a math problem would never be labeled “stupid”, an adult who is dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, money troubles, etc., should not be similarly labeled, shamed, and discarded.  If we all wore signs on our backs listing the causes of our past and present suffering, I think we’d find we have a lot in common.

Teachers are charged with creating the kind of environment in which kids can feel safe to say such things.  We do this by tapping into their empathy.  Just because something hasn’t happened to you, doesn’t mean you can’t do your best to put your judgment aside and look deeply at another person and her struggle.  Talk to her.  Connect with her.  Cultivate compassion within yourself.  We adults need to do a better job of creating this environment for each other, otherwise kids will keep growing up to find out that struggling and suffering is only worthy of shame and secrecy.  Being honest about what’s hard takes strength.  It does not reveal weakness.  Let’s give it a try.  Open up.  It’ll be good for everybody.

One more time, the incredibly wise words of Thich Naht Hanh:

There’s a natural tendency in us to seek pleasure and to avoid suffering.  We have to instruct our mind that suffering can sometimes be very helpful.  We can even speak of “the goodness of suffering.”  Thanks to the suffering, we begin to understand.  And because we understand, we can accept, we can love.  Without understanding and love there cannot be any happiness.  So suffering has to do with happiness.  We should not be afraid of suffering.  We should be able to hold our suffering and look deeply into it, hold it tenderly and learn from it.  We need to know that we can learn from suffering.  The goodness of suffering is something real.  Without suffering there cannot be happiness…So if you know how to suffer, suffering is okay.  And the moment you have that attitude, you don’t suffer much anymore.

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One thought on “Why Do We Suffer in Silence?

  1. Pingback: Fairy Tales, Villains, And The Color Grey | teacherhat

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