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The three things we learn from suffering

You might read this title and think I’ve lost my mind. What value could there possibly be in suffering? Why would I even suggest such an absurd notion? If you’re suffering right now, you might think I’m immeasurably insensitive and inconsiderate.

For most of us (at least those of us in the US), the primary goal in life would appear to be to have the personal freedom to pursue happiness, which implies avoiding suffering at almost any cost. It may surprise you to learn that for some people and cultures, individual freedom and happiness is not the primary purpose of life. Some people find value in suffering. Some people even embrace suffering as a priceless tool for learning and enlightenment.


Of course we all want to be happy, but if the ultimate goal of life is happiness, then we are destined to be disappointed. There will always be something that threatens our happiness. In fact, it’s fairly easy for any of us to become unhappy. Most of us instantly lose our happiness when we feel physical, emotional or financial pain.

I’m not suggesting that we not seek happiness. I wrote a book called 30 Days to Happiness to help people find it! There is nothing wrong with seeking and enjoying happiness. I wish everyone was not only happy, but truly joyful. But all my wishing and writing won’t make it so.

There are people who live with chronic pain and terminal illness, there are parents of children born with severe retardation who require 24/7 care for life, there are people who are lost to dementia, people who live in unspeakable circumstances… we could go on and on. How can happiness be their ultimate goal when they see no end to their very difficult situations?

The best expertise in psychiatry, psychology and medicine cannot make people happy. We can’t vote happiness into our lives. We can’t legislate it. The most dramatic change in public policy won’t guarantee happiness. The most advanced technology can’t bring it into our lives. These things can improve certain aspects of our situations, but they will never be enough to ease all the suffering and usher in happiness. No matter how much we pray, work, and hope, human suffering cannot be eradicated in this life.

Hot pink lights in the form of the word Peace

While happiness for all may not be realistic, peace is possible, even in the midst of suffering. Peace is achievable and can ease suffering greatly when we decide to embrace and learn from the unavoidable suffering that we all experience at some point in our lives.

Rather than looking at our suffering as a curse that we tried to no avail to elude, could we accept the painful experiences that come our way with a sense of acceptance that a valuable lesson is ours for the learning?

If the ultimate goal of life is happiness, then the occurrence of suffering makes our loss of happiness look like failure. Conversely, if the ultimate goal of life is finding meaning and purpose rather than our own personal pleasure and happiness, then the occurrence of suffering in our lives doesn’t make our loss of happiness a failure, but rather an opportunity to gain wisdom and insight.

When happiness is the ultimate goal, then anything that takes it away also has the power to take away our reason for living.

Think about the high rate of suicide. It’s always preceded at some point by suffering. But if a person who is suffering can manage to see his or her life goal as finding meaning in every situation—including times of suffering, perhaps then instead of seeing oneself as moving further from the goal of happiness, the suffering person could choose to mine the lessons out of their painful experiences and find meaning and purpose in their life.

Seeking to discern the life lessons that can be found in the depths of suffering moves us away from the notion that this life is solely about happiness, and that the quality of one’s life can accurately be measured by happiness, to the more realistic idea that there is a good purpose for our lives and that every experience, including the most painful (perhaps especially the most painful), can lead us to self-discovery of depth of character, wisdom, learned abilities and the meaning and purpose of our lives.

Our individual suffering leads us to our own unique discoveries. In addition, there are three important things that suffering tends to do for all of us.

Suffering Lesson #1

Suffering can give us an instant laser focus on our true priorities. If you doubt that, consider the thoughts that first come to mind when you receive a terminal diagnosis. All of a sudden, the most important people come to mind when you believe that your life will be cut short. Things that you wanted just prior that you thought were of the utmost importance are suddenly inconsequential. And the people who you thought would be just fine while you pursued those now inconsequential things are elevated up the rungs of the importance ladder to the highest level significance.

Suffering Lesson #2

Suffering makes us humble. The most beautiful people learn that physical beauty is not the most important thing. The smartest people learn that their outstanding cognitive ability cannot solve every problem. Wealthy people learn that money won’t fix everything. The most popular people learn that popularity is inconsequential when facing insurmountable adversity.

Suffering Lesson #3

Suffering builds empathy in us like nothing else will. We can sympathize with others without going through our own pain, but we can’t truly empathize until we’ve personally experienced suffering. Experiencing our own suffering makes us care more about others, and what they are going through, and it wakes up something inside of us that makes us want to help others who are going through what we’ve been through.


The hard truth is that suffering comes to every life at one time or another. It’s an inevitable part of life. Although we want to believe that we can keep it away with a positive mental attitude, faith-filled prayer, a healthy lifestyle, or a life that’s busy enough and fast enough to outrun suffering, it inevitably comes to each of us in one form or another. Some of us already know that all too well.

Rather than live in stunned denial when suffering comes our way, what if we take a deep breath and accept the re-prioritization of our lives, the newfound humility and the connecting experience of empathy for the sufferings of others that will make us better, wiser, and more enriched people. If we will do this, we may ultimately be grateful for the experiences we would have done anything to avoid.

Rhonda Sciortino has been abandoned, neglected, abused, lied to, cheated on and stolen from, but she's no victim. Rhonda is a survivor, and she encourages others to see themselves as survivors of whatever they've been through. When survivors help others, they become successful survivors. She founded Successful Survivors Foundation to educate, encourage and empower victims to become survivors and ultimately, successful survivors of whatever they've been through.


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