Have you ever allowed yourself to feel self-important, powerful, and irreplaceable? Spend a few sessions underneath a cancer radiation machine, lying inert and helpless. You may experience an attitude adjustment.
Have you ever experienced a time of feeling worthless, helpless, and good-for-nothing? Take some time on a chemotherapy unit receiving the competent and compassionate care of human and mechanical caregivers. You may come out with a more positive perspective.
Suffering is a universal human experience and life’s great leveler. Whether the cause of suffering is the growth of cancer cells, a drunken driver, or a 6.5 earthquake, it thrusts us out of our comfortable routines and into a state of chaos. Everything familiar is stripped away and we feel lost and frightened.
In a book entitled Good is the Flesh: Body, Soul and Christian Faith (Jean Denton, editor), Daniel Sulmasy, OFM, MD, PhD has written an informative article on what suffering does to us when we experience it. His article is entitled “Suffering, Spirituality, and Health Care” and in it he reminds us “Suffering must be distinguished from pain. Not all suffering is caused by pain and not all pain causes suffering.” Pain, he writes, is the result of negatively stimulated nerves in our bodies. “Suffering,” in contrast he says “has less to do with the stimulation of pain fibers than with the experience of persons. As John Paul II has remarked, ‘What we express by the word ”suffering” seems to be essential to the nature of human beings.’” (pg.83-84).
Sulmasy goes on to share “...one simple insight into the spiritual meaning of suffering…. “All suffering may be understood in its root form, as the experience of finitude [limits].” As human beings we are oriented to limitless good, beauty, health, freedom, and yet we live in a world constantly surrounded by evil, ugliness, illness, and limits. “Human beings are oriented toward the infinite but live in a world that is finite. ”[pg.87].
In my recent experiences with chemo and radiation therapies for lung cancer, I find Sulmasy’s observations to be both accurate and comforting. Suffering puts us all in the position of confronting the limits of our human lives. It is, indeed, life’s great leveler. It puts us all on the same playing field coping with the limits surrounding our human lives.
When I realized that, I decided that if I were wise I could use this “leveling” time of my life to learn and grow emotionally, psychologically and spiritually even if my health is limited. It’s too late for a total makeover of who I am but there are three areas I can work on: acceptance, appreciation, and gratitude.
I want to become more accepting of other people, whoever they are and whatever they do. I want to be able to lay aside any judgment of differences and approach each person with openness and positive feelings. My model will be an African-American woman, whose name I don’t even know, who I regularly see in the radiation therapy waiting room. She can tell when she looks at me when I am having a bad day and she never fails to give me a huge, compassionate hug and words of encouragement. What a blessing!
I want to increase my appreciation for the good that surrounds me. This requires me to turn off the TV news sometimes so I can enjoy the morning sunshine, the fall-coloring leaves, the busy squirrels gathering nuts for their winter stash, the brilliant blue of the sky, the gentle rhythms of the rain, the splashes of color made by the chrysanthemums, and the smiles of (some) of the people I see walking by.
Finally, I want to develop a sense of gratitude. In the midst of all my aches, pains, and complaints, I want to learn to thank God for life and for all that has made it a cherished gift to me. I want to give thanks daily for memories, for accomplishments, for ancestors, for mistakes I’ve learned from, for family and friends, and so much more than I can list. Thank you life, thank you love, and thank you, Lord. And - this is hard to say - thank You for this, life’s great leveling experience!
MarySue H. Rosenberger