We Don’t Heal From Suffering We’re Changed By It

We usually want to believe we’ll be grace under pressure, stoic and even sunny in the face of adversity.

The truth is we never really know how we’ll respond to unexpected, searing pain and loss — being truly in despair — until we find ourselves facing it head on.  Even then we don’t have any confidence that we’ll muster the strength to get beyond it — to push forward. Some do and some don’t.

I am reminded how much suffering has the power to change us when I review my own journal writing from five or 10 years ago, or when I see or hear of people engaged in epic struggles.  The cultural norm — particularly here in the U.S. — is to criticize those absorbed in heartache as being without grace, or to harrumph impatiently when grief lives on longer than others are prepared to accept.

We’re reminded daily that it’s bad form to remain too long in a negative state. Society is uncomfortable — plain and simple — when the iconic happy face is not front and center.

A recent piece, however, called What Suffering Does, by The New York Times columnist David Brooks, takes a more nuanced look. Noting that “we live in a culture awash in talk about happiness,” Brooks challenges readers to take a closer look at how the two different states impact us:

“Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

“First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.”

Theologian Tillich is spot on. There’s nothing quite so dark as seeing yourself at your worst and then discovering your heart is blacker than you might have imagined. Worse still, as I recall, everyone wants to hurry the downhearted to seek and find tidy closure (as if such a thing exists).

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But that’s precisely the wrong tonic. Brooks goes on to note,

“…suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquility begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from.”

I didn’t always like the person I was over the past few years but I know from experience that there is no fast track, no magic formula for accessing tranquility.  In relating to a researcher/journalist over lunch recently what Mr. T. and I experienced in the protracted failure after failure to conceive for a decade, I marveled that we not only remained sane, we managed to remain together. We are stronger for all that we lived with and through and I am deeply grateful those years are now in the rear view mirror. As if reading my mind, Brooks wrote:

“Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it….

“People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility.”

As angst-ridden as I might felt in my worst despair, the suffering in the end forged a better, more forgiving person. I also found that as Brooks concluded, “even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences,” I managed to “double down on vulnerability” and hurl myself deeper and gratefully into my loved ones and commitments.”

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I certainly didn’t choose to suffer but I’m thankful for what the suffering taught me.

Pamela Tsigdinos

Writer, blogger and, oh, yeah, infertility survivor. My memoir, Silent Sorority, tells the whole story. There's a movie in there somewhere. Given the quirkiness needed to relate it all I'm thinking Jennifer Lawrence would be a good fit.

32 thoughts on “We Don’t Heal From Suffering We’re Changed By It

  1. This is SO beautiful, Pamela. I found myself nodding and nodding in agreement when I read this post. :-) I agree especially on the bolded part. It was so utterly shocking when I found out I was capable of feeling all those things altogether at one go. So overwhelming. I felt crazy and I’m always thankful to have found others who’re open and honest with their journeys because they make me feel less alone – plus I get to learn a lot from their journeys. :-) Your book and blogs have been so helpful, as well.

        1. I haven’t read it yet, loribeth, but I will someday. I have so many unread books left here. :-) And I’ll definitely remember to watch the movie. :-)

  2. Beautifully put. I wish we were able to accept grief and suffering for what it is—a deeply personal journey–and support each other in it, wherever we are, without judgment. I agree that the journey changes us, allows us to know ourselves more deeply. In some cases that can draw us closer to loved ones, and in others, I think we drift apart, realizing that we aren’t as compatible as we thought. That’s not a narrative about getting “better.” It’s a narrative of transformation.

  3. Wonderful post. I love that image of finding this hidden compartment in your “self” (and hidden compartments within that).

  4. Yes, beautifully put.
    And I loved the final sentence: “I certainly didn’t choose to suffer but I’m thankful for what the suffering taught me.”
    So true!
    PS: the new design of your blog is lovely!

  5. “Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.” This is so very true, for me, at least. I don’t always agree with Brooks, but I think he’s right in this piece, and certainly within the context of grief & loss. Love how you have expanded on his ideas here. Love the illustration too. And yes, I second Klara’s comment — love the new look of the blog! :)

  6. I agree with the comments above, beautiful post Pamela and your comment that ‘Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different” also applied to me. Thanks so much

  7. Big smile here.

    I hadn’t seen the Brooks piece, and thanks for bringing it to my attention. Yes, this: “there is no fast track” to find inner peace after enduring suffering. And your last line.

    I love your new look, too!

    1. Agreed Carolyn,
      I think this part really captures it all for me:
      “Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.”

  8. I loved this. Like you, I am frequently thankful for what suffering taught me, and for who I am now.

    I also could relate very much to this statement: “suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. ” It has made me a lot less scared about things I can’t control, much more accepting of my own limitations (and those of others), and far more compassionate and less judgemental.

  9. “…the suffering in the end forged a better, more forgiving person.” Me too! And I love your conclusion and echo your sentiments, though our journeys through infertility and loss have been different. Thank you so much for writing and sharing your perspective from this stage of your life and for directing us to the awesome David Brooks piece. I am grateful for what you teach us that you have learned through your suffering.

  10. I have come out so different I don’t recognize myself. Not all of that is bad, of course; I started my TTC/IF journey at the tender age of 23, when major changes were inevitable (and necessary) anyway. It’s just made the whole process so much more dramatic – too big and unwieldy for me to manage in the neat packages I so much prefer. (Enter therapy!) I can identify with much that he has said; I have experienced the sinking, and the tranquility, and the not knowing where it comes from, and the getting different rather than better. I’m not quite to the point of “thankful for what suffering has taught me” yet – I still can’t say with unwavering confidence that, given the choice to be this person rather than the ignorant person who hadn’t walked this path, I would have taken this. I can see that there are advantages here – deficiencies I had before – but taken in the aggregate, I can’t yet feel entirely confident it was a good trade. I hope to get there some day. (Thanks in no small part to the invaluable inspiration of my forebears on this journey. I hope you realize that each of your posts is a gift.)

    1. Thank you, dear misfit, for your kind response and encouragement. The beauty of life is that we get to keep growing — and we all move at our own pace.

  11. I don’t like “discovering your heart is blacker than you might have imagined” because it implies to me something with an ill intent. But I do understand what you mean by that. The experience of infertility left me a much different person that I ever imagined I would be.

  12. I am new here and lost. I am older and have been through a lot over the past few years. Have very little and am feeling very alone. I am STILL left with a broken heart, and having no significant other in my life is painful. I don’t know that this is an appropriate place to start here but I am very interested in talking to others without children. The line about being changed is what caused me to post this. I am not healed.

  13. This post and the article are both very interesting. The glorification of suffering in some cultures (such as mine, the Portuguese, as well as in Catholic Southern Europe in general), has, for many centuries, served as a sort of compensation for oppressing the poor and women, among other groups. The modern (and very American) glorification of happiness serves to encourage individualism, social progress, but it sometimes fuels consumerism and social disconnection. Any glorification or mystification is twisting reality.
    Suffering for an ideal (your own, truly felt, and not imposed by self-serving others) can bring happiness, just as living comfortably without purpose can bring unhappiness. There’s a reason it’s “the pursuit of happiness” and not of joy, because joy is transient. A fun day at the beach or a new dress can bring joy, but not happiness in the deepest sense.
    The more I think about it, the more I sense that people react to others’ suffering as a mirror of their own self-image and cultural conditioning. Basically, it’s great to be optimistic, to take things into your own hands and try to solve your own problems, but it’s also sane to realize when things are out of your hands, and to learn to accept. I guess each person’s idea of balance is different, and that’s why, sometimes, you need to think of whom you’re talking to before deciding whether to offer them encouragement or simply sympathy.
    In short, everyone suffers, and it’s unkind and rude to dismiss other people’s suffering, just as it’s rude to force our suffering (or happiness) on others.
    As for personal growth, I think it can only be achieved if you face the pain honestly, not by pretending it isn’t there – that’s not being strong, it’s being delusional. It’s one of the reasons I intensely dislike the dribble of most self-help books, “life coaches” and “motivational speakers”: wishing things doesn’t make them so, and charging people money for selling them this idea is, in my opinion, immoral.
    Sorry for the rant. Love the new look of your blog, Pamela!

    1. P.S. On a more personal note, I agree with what you said about “discovering your heart is darker than you might have imagined”. I was always a very open, happy, silly person. I still am, but the experience of infertility has made me dwell on some pretty heavy stuff much earlier in life than usual, and that has changed me, made me more confident to protect myself, emotionally, but it has also made more aware of how scary my most dark emotions can be. I hadn’t felt so intensely since my adolescence, and, like most people, I felt very intensely in those days. I like to think that the best way to keep the darkest emotions from taking over is to acknowledge them, and their power, not pretend that I’m over them – they will never disappear, because they are a part of me, they’re human nature. I think writing about it, airing these emotions out, is very helpful, and your blog has given me lots of opportunities to work on my emotions in a rational light, even when I don’t comment, just reading your insightful posts and the wonderful comments. Thank you again, Pamela and also everyone who comments!

      1. Dear Ana,
        It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for continuing to read and share your perspective. One day I hope to join you in Portugal so we can build upon our friendship and further elaborate on all the ideas we’ve developed and shared over the years. ox, Pamela

  14. I didn’t choose suffering. I’m not yet thankful for what it has taught me. Right now I just hurt. I hate infertility. I hate the woman that it has turned me into. It’s not fair. I don’t want to be broken anymore.

    No real point to this comment, I just hope that someday I reach the point of acceptance. The point where I feel like infertility has changed me in positive ways. The point that many of you ladies are at is where I aspire to be. At this point I’d settle for it not hurting so darn bad.

    1. Hi Kat.

      I’m sitting here reading some of these posts and want you to know that I feel that way a lot also. I have to say that I feel I had accepted it all for a long time, but now I’m a bit older and have lost a lot of “mother figures” in my life this past two years. (My own mother died when I was 25), so it seems that my sad and angry feelings have resurfaced in the mix of all this compicated grief. My message is this: if you have close friends and family, no matter what the relationship is, don’t let them go. I’ve allowed myself to disconnect from some important people in my life and I’m tying now to mend those broken bridges. Love is the answer for me and I have somehow let my anger keep it at bay. Not a good way to live and it breaks my heart all over again.
      All best to you and thanks for your honesty.

  15. I have just found your site and this article….and it is exactly what I need. At 43 (I’ll be 44 in March) I am currently FINALLY realizing that I will not be a mother…after years of trying and multiple miscarriages (yes….I should have realized this years ago…I have been cruising “De-Nile” so to speak) The realization has been swift, sudden, and brutal…and has left me doubting my sanity. What has surprised, and upset, me the most has been my rage…my pure unadulterated white hot burning rage. I have become a person I don’t know…jealous, spiteful, bitter, angry. Some of this may be fueled by my 20 year career as an ER nurse…I have lost count of the number of abusive and/or neglectful mothers I have encountered on a daily basis. If I was just “acceptably” heartbroken and crushed…maybe I could live with that….but right now I feel like I am fighting with the absolute worst parts of myself.

  16. Jennifer,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I completely empathize with your emotions. I can only imagine how hard it is to be an ER nurse and to face the examples of bad parenting. Be gentle with yourself and your anger and disbelief.

    I remember writing another piece about the rage and the insanity that threatened to overtake me on my worst days as I stepped away from denial. It will get better. You might also related to this post.

    Wishing you peace and strength…

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