This quote has been pinging around in my mind recently like a pinball machine:
“Suffering is a moment of clarity, when you can no longer deny the truth of a situation and are forced into uncomfortable change.” – Debbie McMillan.
This notion of suffering within and its tendency to act as a seed for change in our lives is of great intrigue to me. We are all inherently afraid of failure or suffering in one form or another. Afraid of decisions that may cause setbacks in our careers. Adverse to risks that may impact our financial security. Fearful of mistakes in the steps we take to bring our children up in such a way that generates productive citizens. Worried about how our choices might negatively impact the people we care about. Yet in each instance, our failings offer an uncanny ability to produce new flowers of opportunity. A cleansing or a shedding of a weaker skin. The suffering that we endure through those failures, not the failure itself, is what molds us into who we are. It most often nudges us into an unfamiliar, yet fuller, direction. Does that mean we should seek out that suffering more often? Perhaps.
But that’s not my point here. I want to focus on the clarity derived from suffering that we tend to miss because we are too busy running in the other direction. I’m suggesting that the way in which we digest things, particularly our failings, is of critical importance. I have heard the phrase “fail early and often” countless times. I have also heard it with a tack on of “fail early, often, and small”, which is another way of saying put yourself in a position to fail but also to mitigate the impact or lessen the blow of the failure. Both of these phrases encourage taking more risks and learning from the experience. And perhaps that’s good advice, but it does not capture the essence of suffering. It certainly does not capture the value of the suffering process, and more specifically, learning to trust that process in real time. I want to separate the failure from the suffering.
We often want to see it end as quickly as possible, extract the lesson (if that), and dump the rest. In my view that’s a dangerous approach to the obstacles we face. We should recognize that these things are more complex than that. Our hurdles are not as simple as touching a hot oven, quickly recoiling your hand, and saying “Ouch. That was hot. I’ll never do that again.” And we shouldn’t try to treat them that way.
My daughter’s struggle with ADSL has put a spot light on this concept. She fails every day. She fails at holding her bottle up to drink on her own. Fails at bringing food to her mouth without serious assistance. Fails at communicating the simple need of “another bite please”. She literally cannot. Instead, she cries out (it’s really more of a shriek) after every bite as if to say “Don’t you understand. I want more food, and I’m having a hard time waiting for you to get a bite of your own food after each of mine. Got it?” Meals are an interesting time in our home.
It’s hard to say whether and how much she is suffering, and by that I mean feeling pain physically or psychologically, through these daily failings. The natural thing to do as parents, however, is to try to endure that suffering for her. It’s quite tempting to fall into the trap of removing all obstacles or barriers to success for her, even for such a simple task as eating or communicating a need. When we do that, however, we fail to value and trust that suffering process.
I cannot overemphasize how often and in how many different ways we miss opportunities to develop and trust a system for ourselves and for our children that may have little impact in the present but an enormous output over time. For me, that system has become sitting down to write (for as little as five minutes or as much as an hour) every day. It is hard to feel a sense of accomplishment in that on any given day, but I cannot afford to concern myself with that. A year from now, I hope to look back over a body of work that is worth being proud of. Prayer or meditation operates in a similar fashion. Or perhaps this applies best to your workout regimen or overall approach to your health. Or it could be your career. We often miss the chance to view these things through the process lens (read: suffering lens) as we should–the process of relationship development with yourself, your God, and others and the resulting awareness, clarity of mind, or mental strength to engage for another day. And because of that miss, we are too short-sighted in how we put those things into practice.
You might say these misses are simply the result of poor discipline. I disagree. That’s a classic example of a symptom but not the problem. The lack of discipline is a result of the real driver, which is a failure to acknowledge the process of suffering and its corresponding value. My hypothesis is that discipline would be the natural result of more front end thinking about suffering, the process associated with it, and the corresponding value.
For Willa, this process takes shape in the most basic forms. The steps towards “a body of work to be proud of” are incredibly small. Holding a banana in her hand. Bringing a spoon of oatmeal to her mouth. Finding a way to communicate “more” by signing and not screaming. The most difficult piece is that she must rely on her parents, caregivers, and therapists to trust that suffering process for her. It is a humbling thought.
The Law of Now
We have evolved into a people that compel immediacy. We are a society on demand. And we have created the law of now, which says there are consequences and repercussions for failing to satisfy the immediacy requirement. Stop and think about any product you consume to validate this, and tell me if I’m wrong. The scary thing is, we are also blind to this phenomenon. Completely desensitized. And because of that, our failure to capture clarity through suffering is always imminent.
For Sarah and me, Willa’s suffering has indeed provided several moments of clarity and has been a catalyst for change in many areas of our lives, not the least of which is how we approach a journey that requires more systems and repetition. I have written about this catalyst for change extensively in Re-evaluate Everything, Talking about an Early Exit, Exposed, and Broken Expectations, so I won’t rehash it here.
The challenge is learning how to trust those systems–the art of strategic repetition. It is an all out war within our own heads at times. But we both agree it’s worth the fight.
Go Fund Me
As always, thanks for visiting our GoFundMe campaign, These Genes Fit Just Right. Gratitude is never ceasing.