We hate to suffer. But sometimes misery is the best medicine for growth.
When Olivia Taylor-Young's 28-year-old son died in an accident in 1995, a grief counselor walked up to her in the hospital room and handed her a brochure.
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"I don't need it," she insisted.
"I think you do," he responded.
"No, you don't understand," said Taylor-Young. "I wrote the damn thing."
Taylor-Young, a writer, had done a how-to on grieving for the local hospice. She knew about confronting bereavement head-on. She knew that she had to experience the pain, but that society would prefer she get better fast.
"We're a culture that has so little tolerance for suffering that we talk about getting `closure' five minutes after there's a plane crash," says Taylor-Young.
Consider how the media covered a massacre at one Colorado high school. A mere 24 hours after the shooting we were already hearing, "Columbine can now let the healing begin."
The modern world of miracle medicines, ever-accelerating technology and unprecedented material abundance has conspired to make suffering an illness, instead of a necessary part of life.
For all her knowledge of the grieving process, Taylor-Young wasn't spared the excruciating stages of denial, anger and step-by-step acceptance. Her knowledge just helped her feel normal.
While some are inclined to write off suffering as stress, or tackle it pharmaceutically as a clinical ailment, the reality is that most things worthwhile involve suffering.
M. Scott Peck, author of the 1978 classic The Road Less Traveled, writes that suffering is essential for becoming fully realized human beings. "Perhaps the best measure of a person's greatness is the capacity for suffering," he concludes.
Some of the world's most creative people are those who have the courage to suffer, to challenge authority, defy odds, survive setbacks, confront failures and tolerate isolation.
"There is no way we can get through life without suffering," says cognitive therapist Kathleen Burton. How we handle our suffering is often the difference between personal growth and misery. It's a matter of separating productive and unproductive suffering, she says.
Think of the difference between grieving for a loved one, and attaching blame randomly or irresponsibly based on some kind of unresolved anger.
We are mixed up on the question of legitimate suffering, says Taylor-Young, whose own experience with grief propelled her to write a book, Signs, Cosigns & Off On Tangents. "We'll mourn for you if you confess on Oprah that your mother didn't love you when you were 5, but then when your mother dies we'll tell you to get over it," she says.
Some try to dismiss suffering by searching compulsively for silver linings. When the daughter of a friend of Taylor-Young's died of cancer at 12, someone tried to cheer up the mother by saying, "At least you won't have to worry about a teenage daughter getting pregnant."
The need to embrace suffering isn't to deny the possibility of transcendence. Think of the AIDS patient who joins the speakers' circuit to warn people about risky behavior, or the cancer patient who becomes a Meals on Wheels driver.
There is always opportunity in suffering. Our mission in life is to find meaningful outlets without denying its inescapable reality.