Private Suffering

2015 November 4
by Dr. Zachary White

When we’re in pain, we don’t mind screaming out, calling attention to ourselves and our experiences. We need help. Look, don’t you see? Amidst pain, we turn outward. Family, friends, and specialists alike willingly race toward us to relieve, remedy, and improve our condition.

Suffering, however, is a different experience. There are no ambulances to race to us when our expectations are interrupted and what we thought would happen is no longer possible. Few others come to us in the midst of suffering, not because they don’t care, but because we far too often relegate suffering to that of a private experience.

Go ahead, walk on by. There’s nothing to see here. This is a private matter. Keep going. That’s right, let’s respect their privacy and dignity. Let him be and give him the respect he deserves. 

At first glance, these sentiments appear caring and noble, but they more aptly reflect our collective discomfort with public communication of suffering.  Here are some common reasons as to why suffering is so frequently pushed away from sight into the shadows of American life.

  • Suffering can’t be proven. If something can’t be pointed to, it becomes mysterious. And when something becomes mysterious, we don’t know what to do with it or how to make sense of it. If suffering can’t be pointed to on a CT scan, then it often becomes dismissed as something less than real—something you experience. That’s your suffering, not mine. Once removed from the public spaces of life, it’s ours to deal with on our own. Our property.  Something we must deal with alone or hide before we present ourselves to others.
  • Suffering is difficult to communicate. Suffering renders us silent. It doesn’t seem to fit within our everyday life. The experience isn’t neat and tidy, able to be categorized as bad, good, getting better. Recovery and improvement are beyond comprehension because suffering makes it so difficult to look beyond the fog of now. Disoriented and distraught, suffering nudges us away from one another, slyly convincing us that our experience is ours alone, and no one else’s. Too often, suffering appears beyond expression because it is messy and contradictory, defying all sympathy card categories we resort to when trying to figure out what will make sense to others.
  • Suffering resists prediction. In the grip of suffering, the future is now. The past is now. And the present seems permanent. Unlike physical pain, suffering is scary to most others because there is no clear prescription that will make it go away. We can’t anticipate exactly when suffering will leave us. Grief. Loss. Fear. Deep disappointment and self-doubt take the future away from us, imprisoning us in a permanent moment.
  • Suffering is contagious. We don’t fear other people’s pain. We do fear others’ suffering. When we see someone struggling, we are reminded of our own fragility. Of the fact that life may not be as predictable and consistent as we might lead ourselves to believeIf we acknowledge others’ suffering, then we can’t escape the fact that we are vulnerable too.  Our bodies are fragile. Our relationships are constantly changing. We can’t help but anxiously watch as our expectations bend in the face of unexpected forces seemingly beyond what we thought possible. Amidst suffering, we are reminded of our powerlessness.

Instead of walking on by those who are suffering, what if we walked toward them? And what if the them was us—either now or soon to be? What if we listened to those in the midst of suffering, not because we knew being near suffering is easy, or because we have any answers, or because doing so will make us feel any better. Rather, what if the acknowledgment of suffering in everyday life created spaces for expression and acknowledgment beyond accolades for winning or achieving or accomplishing? What if we believed suffering was a testament to responding to life as it is being lived . . . not something to be shameful of, but something to remind us of our connections to one another.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Teresa Herrmann permalink
    November 5, 2015

    “What if we believed suffering was a testament to responding to life as it is being lived . . . not something to be shameful of, but something to remind us of our connections to one another.” I would only add to the end of that …”and to our Lord”. As a private sufferer I personally have been comforted knowing that God is sometimes just reminding me to be present with Him. It took me a very long time to get to this conclusion, but it has brought me tremendous peace.

    I realize Zachary the above information is not something probably politically correct for the blog but my intent was really to share my thoughts with you. Your writings have also been very inspirational for me. Thank you.

  2. November 6, 2015


    Thanks again for your comments. I too agree with your comments. Faith, belief, and trust provide great solace amidst life’s most difficult moments. I’m so glad your faith journey has brought you peace. Thank you so much for contributing to the ongoing dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS