The Gift of Suffering

My definitions and usage of various terms in the following essay (e.g. “waking up,” “leap-frogging,” “The Force”) are found in the initial essays in this blog collection. See the entries posted as Front Matter and Introduction, Waking Up and Leap-Frogging.



The Gift of Suffering


            The title of this essay likely induces one of two responses. The charitable response assumes there’s been some sort of typo of rather large proportion, like a whole word switched for another, i.e. “gift” got put in place of another word like “tragedy” or “misfortune.” Less charitably, one might respond that the author has clearly lost her mind, if she think suffering can be regarded as a gift!

            The first response, while kind, is erroneous: there’s no typo. “Gift” is what I meant. As for the second, I can only ask that you bear with me, read on, and pass judgment on my mental state at the end of the essay. Perhaps it won’t seem as crazy then as it might at first glance.

            I shall begin as I do in many of these essays, with an examination of the meaning and etymology of the key words. Then I’ll consider how the title might make sense, and finish up by relating the theme of suffering to the wake up/leap frog process.

The Meaning of “Suffering”

            Our English word “suffer” comes from two Latin words, sub and ferre, meaning literally “to carry under.” When we “suffer,” we carry our pain under. Under where? Under our heart, because pain is a feeling and the heart is the area that processes feelings.

            Because I know that etymologies carry a deep wisdom, I mulled over this sense of “carrying under the heart” for some time. What did the ancient Romans know that we have forgotten? After thinking about this for some time with the back burner of my mind, I had an intuition that led me to check my old physiology textbook.[1] The organ that is under the human heart is the spleen, whose task it is to purify the body of toxins (especially bacteria and worn out blood cells). It also stores and releases blood as the body needs it. The spleen, in other words, helps us stay healthy by processing and removing the old or what would endanger our health, while it provides us with energy and resources (blood).

Since there are no coincidences, it is not by chance that the psychological equivalent of the spleen is the act of carrying pain under the heart, or what Jung calls “conscious suffering.” “Whoa!,” you say. Bear with me. I’ll make the connection clear.

Another Latin meaning for sub + ferre conveys the psychological sense. These two words joined as a compound can mean “to take upon oneself.” When we “take upon ourselves” the pain that human embodiment is heir to—that is, when we refuse to repress, deny or avoid facing reality as it is, we do psychologically what the spleen does for us physically: We help ourselves to stay healthy by avoiding the development of mental illness or neurosis. We also free up or release energy that otherwise would go into repression.

Types of Suffering

            Carl Jung identified two forms of suffering: meaningless and meaningful. Meaningless suffering is everywhere, being part of the human condition, as the Buddha recognized. This existential suffering is the result of our trying to avoid pain, by denial and repression. None of us wants pain. We naturally shun it. But doing so is like the spleen refusing to do its job. It leads to big trouble, dis-ease, and real problems. In the realm of the psyche, these are called “neuroses.” Jung identified the long-term habit of repression (our “stuffing” unpleasant feelings, facts, etc. within) as the cause of neuroses.[2]

            Because we all do this, we are all “neurotic” to one degree or another. This is “meaningless” suffering because it makes no sense, has no significance, and gives us no benefit. This form of suffering, in other words, is not a gift.

            The form of suffering that is meaningful comes when we stop repressing and take up our moral task as humans to deal consciously with our pain. In this process, we take up the pain that is endemic to living and work with it, in the knowledge that pain has a purpose. It is a warning, with an intrinsic message. We need to listen to our inner voices to learn this message.

            To do this, we allow the full range of emotions to flow through us, without putting up resistance to the process. We set the intention to experience the full range of feelings—be they good or bad. This requires moral courage, but, while it is uncomfortable (especially in the early stages), it affords the same benefits as a well-working spleen: We are more resilient. We have more energy. Our spirit is purified. And, most of all, we begin to be aware of the meaning behind the pain we experience. As the Buddha said, the more conscious we become, the less we suffer. The development of consciousness serves to deliver us from meaningless suffering.

Suffering as a Gift

            Ernesto Cardenal said succinctly what I mean here: “…even my pain is God’s loving gift.”[3] Now you might well wonder not only at my sanity, but at Cardenal’s! The word “gift” has positive connotations. When we receive a “gift” it is a good thing. How can suffering be seen as something good?

            Surely meaningless suffering (as defined above) is no gift. But suffering consciously undertaken, worked with, processed and explored to the point that we recognize its meaning—this suffering is a gift, with a wonderful host of associated benefits. Let’s consider some of the ways suffering gifts us.

_ Meaningful suffering makes true happiness possible. Jung recognized this when he noted that “… happiness is itself poisoned if the measure of suffering has not been fulfilled.”[4] Etymologies corroborate Jung: the root of our word “bliss” means “pain.”[5] Think about it: Would you know (be able to identify) “happiness” if you did not know what it meant to be sad? We need both dualities in life.[6]

_ Meaningful suffering induces humility, because it brings us in contact with the basic substrate of human reality: our shared feelings. Pain is the great equalizer, and when we can touch into our pain and realize its meaning, we become very much more grounded, less egotistical and aware of our humanness.

_ Meaningful suffering can also teach us a lot, if we pay attention. Why pay attention? To discover what the lessons are for us in this suffering that we have drawn to ourselves. Nothing happens by chance, so the relationships that hurt, the events that befall, the “tragedies” that crop up—all hold a lesson or lessons. All the wisdom traditions teach that suffering is a place of spiritual promise and healing, if we would “take up our cross” with conscious intent.[7]

_ Suffering that is consciously accepted can be very liberating. It does this by bringing us to the truth. We come to see what is really going on in our lives, and this releases us from the pack of lies we have been telling ourselves for years (and, in some cases, for decades). As Jesus says, “the truth shall set you free.”[8] We find our truth in the midst of our suffering.

_ Suffering is also a “psychic mover”[9] and driver of our creativity, behind our efforts to get out of pain.[10] The worse the suffering, the more the totality of our being is marshaled to respond to it, and this sparks the creative impulse that lies inside. It is not accidental that so many of the great artists lived lives full of sturm und drang, i.e. suffering.

_ Suffering grappled with makes us aware of grace, that we are graced with support in a myriad of forms. We can come to this discovery only by living it, i.e. enduring suffering with intention and attention.[11]

_ Suffering at times can link us to the Divine, or the “supraconscious forces” that transcend the human plane.[12] The 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart noted this, when he wrote that “… God is always with a man in suffering;…”[13]When this occurs, we are lifted up out of our distress through an experience that leaves us feeling touched by a miracle.

_ Taking up suffering consciously can show us our true grit, or the full measure of endurance we have. Jung noted that “Suffering that is not understood is hard to bear, while on the other hand, it is often astounding to see how much a person can endure when he understands the why and wherefore.”[14] Few people who take up their suffering intentionally find themselves overwhelmed by it.

_ Taking up our pain and working with it helps us develop what Buddhists call “the bodhichitta,” or compassionate heart. “Compassion” means, literally, “to suffer with” another. We can’t suffer with someone else unless and until we have taken up our own suffering. “Pain links us to other people,” as May Sarton said[15] (and she knew whereof she spoke, having herself experienced suffering).

_ Finally, suffering gifts us by leading us to change. Jim Wallis, the founding editor of Sojourners magazine, noted that “… it is the experience of touching the pain of others that is the key to change.”[16] As we accept and integrate more and more of our suffering, we become able to touch the pain of others. Until we have the courage to touch our own pain, we aren’t able to touch others’ pain. As we mature into our own suffering, we become more grounded, more mature, more in touch with what really matters in life. We become aware of the purposiveness of the Universe. Things begin to make more sense. We realize there are no accidents or chance events,[17] not now, not in our prior experience with the people we dealt with, nor in the circumstances we face. And this knowledge builds trust, in both ourselves and in The Force (the power that governs the Universe).

            These ten reasons may strike you as little more than words on a page if you haven’t experienced meaningful suffering yourself. This whole business is like riding a bicycle: you can’t really know it without getting “hands on,” i.e. without getting into your own pain.

            Some gifts are big, some are small. How big the “gift” in an individual’s suffering depends on personal circumstance. Those who are very neurotic stand to benefit the most, yet are most likely initially to resist anything that suggests getting in touch with pain. By definition, the neurotic is a person who has spent many years stuffing his or her pain. So very neurotic people usually find it hard to get started in the process of consciously touching into and processing their pain, but when they do, will look back later with the most appreciation for the gift it held, because their dis-ease is relieved and life seems so much better. I say this with deep personal experience of this truth (as one who was very, very neurotic and lived through much searing pain and grief).

How This Relates to Waking Up

            Accepting the gift of suffering is central to the process of waking up. In fact, so central that we can say, without exaggeration, that it is impossible to wake up without suffering, to one degree or another.[18]

            As we suffer through the process of becoming conscious of the unconscious, we become humble, aware of the basic equality of all people. This humility is a key feature of waking up.

            Waking up also implies honesty: knowing who we really are, what we really feel, what’s really going on within us. When we begin to wake up, we begin to recognize the lies we have been living, and we are motivated not to do so anymore.

            To be in the process of waking up also means becoming more compassionate—able to identify with and willing to support those who could use a hand up. As we can own our own suffering, we can extend compassion to others.

            And waking up implies change, including the changes noted above (greater resiliency and energy, spiritual purification etc.). As we allow ourselves consciously to experience suffering, we open ourselves to change—positive change. Over time, life gets better.

How This Relates to Leap Frogging

            The most obvious way this whole concept of suffering as a gift relates to leap frogging is in the perception itself: The mere act of regarding suffering as a gift implies the ability to stand apart from the herd and look at reality in an unconventional way. This independence of mind is essential for choosing the leap frog option. Trust me when I say that, if you go around calling suffering a “gift,” many people will think you’re crazy (as I noted at the beginning of this essay). So you must be willing to go your own way and hold to the convictions that are born out of your own personal experience and truth. This is what leap frogging requires.

            Leap frogging also requires a compassionate heart. The compassionate heart that develops from meaningful suffering tends to seek new solutions, the unorthodox or novel approaches. It is not limited to the “same old, same old.” It dares. It has courage.

            And this is the third form of connection: Courage. Just like taking on suffering consciously, leap frogging requires courage. If you can take up your cross (which is how Jesus described this process of conscious suffering), you are equipped for leap frogging.[19]


            Another essay in this collection deals with the theme of not resisting evil. One form of evil is meaningless, or neurotic, suffering. Jesus exhorted his listeners not to “resist” this suffering. He was not advocating masochism, flagellation etc., but rather was urging people not to repress, deny or try to fight against it. As an enlightened being, Jesus understood the gift that lies within suffering. As we awake, we too can experience this gift.

Some Questions for Reflection

Do I live with sufficient emotional liberty that I feel free to share my feelings (especially negative feelings like anger, rage, sadness, grief, fear, weakness) with others I trust?

Did I grow up in a family environment that welcomed emotional expression? Or did my family of origin have patterns of denying or “stuffing” feelings?

As I think back over the contents of this essay, do I feel the title has been explained, or do I think the whole thing is nonsense? If the latter is the case, might this be due to my resistance to the idea of consciously experiencing pain?

Am I prepared to make an attempt to delve into my pain a bit? a lot? Might I need some external support to do so (e.g. a counselor, therapist, or reliable/spiritually mature friend)?


For Further Reading

Brussat, Frederic & Mary Ann (1996), Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life. New York: Scribner.

Cousins, Norman (1979), “Pain is not the Enemy,” Anatomy of an Illness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Edinger, Edward (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. Chicago & LaSalle IL: Open Court Press.

Gunn, Robert Jingen (2000), Journeys into Emptiness: Dogen, Merton, Jung and the Quest for Transformation. New York: Paulist Press.

Hitchcock, John (1991), The Web of the Universe: Jung, the “New Physics” and Human Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press.

Hollis, James (1996), Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jung, Carl (1954a), ”The Development of Personality,” Collected Works, 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954b), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” Collected Works, 16. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” Collected Works, 11, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), “The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” Collected Works 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), “The Symbolic Life,” Collected Works, 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kellogg, Mary Alice (2000), “My perky days are over,” McCall’s (December 2000), 20-23.

Lammers, Ann Conrad (1994), In God’s Shadow: The Collaboration of Victor White and C.G. Jung. New York: Paulist Press.

Moacanin, Radmila (1992), ”Tantric Buddhism and Jung: Connections, Similarities, Differences,” Self and Liberation: The Jung-Buddhist Dialogue, eds. Meckel & Moore. New York: Paulist Press.

Three Initiates (1912), The Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece. Chicago: The Yogi Publication Society.

Tortora, & Grabowski (1993), Principles of Anatomy & Physiology, 7th ed. New York: HarperCollins.


[1] Tortora & Grabowski (1993), 689.

[2] Jung (1954a), 78. Jung regarded neurosis as “a substitute for legitimate suffering.” See Lammers (1994), 193.

[3] Quoted in Brussat & Brussat (1996), 47.

[4] Jung (1954b), 81.

[5] Kellogg (2000), 23.

[6] The Buddha taught that dukka, suffering, consists of both pleasure and pain, because the pleasure doesn’t last; Gunn (2000), 274.

[7] Brussat & Brussat (1996), 390. Cf. Hitchcock (1991), 163, on the lessons suffering can teach.

[8] John 8:32.

[9] Moacanin (1992), 287.

[10] Jung (1969), 331.

[11] Ibid., 331-2.

[12] Ibid., 344.

[13] Quoted in Edinger (1985), 178.

[14] Jung (1976), 698.

[15] Quoted in Brussat & Brussat (1996), 391.

[16] Quoted in ibid., 91.

[17] That there are no accidents, nothing happening by chance, but for every event there is a cause is one of the Hermetic principles; see Three Initiates (1912), 171-182.

[18] Hitchcock (1991), 84. Jung agrees; see his dialogue with Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, in Meckel & Moore (1992), 110.

[19] Jung went so far as to state categorically that “No one on the road to wholeness can escape that characteristic suspension [between opposites] which is the meaning of crucifixion.” (1954b), 262.