Necessary suffering: The way down is the way up

Image: Alex Ivashenko

If we look at the world — from nature to the stories and myths we’ve told each other throughout time — a poignant truth can be derived:

One thing must be sacrificed in order to gain something else.

A caterpillar has to lose its caterpillarness in order to become a butterfly.

Leaves must die, fall, and turn to dust before new life emerges in the spring.

Remy has to get sucked down the sewer and lose his family before he becomes a world-class chef (Ratatouille is one of my all-time favorite movies — I had to use it here).

Donald Trump has to become president before a new kind of politics arises (did I say that?).

There’s no way around it. Things must get really shitty and die before something new emanates from the loins of creation (sorry, I just felt like saying ‘loins’, okay?).

This is the case in our personal lives as well…

There’s a ‘necessary suffering’ required (yes, I dare say, required) in life. It’s programmed in and I’m convinced it’s absolutely inescapable.

This tendency to want to escape suffering is the root cause of the lion’s share of extended evils of our world, especially in the west.

I don’t know about you, but I was raised with the notion that, if I didn’t ‘sin’ and I said my prayers the right way — if I was a good boy — I’d escape suffering…

But then we lost our home…
And my mom got sick and passed away when I was 16…
And I had to deal with my extended family’s addictions and poverty…
And I lost all of my money in 2008 a month after getting married…
And my dad passed 6 months before my daughter was born…

I could go on, but I know I’m preaching to the choir. You’ve likely experienced lower than I have. This is no pissing contest or miseryfest. This is a call to solidarity through the one thing we all have in common, but which our society strives so hard to avoid...

Our suffering.

Have you been able to escape it? I’ve never met anyone who has.

So why do we have such a stigma about it?

Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences — all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey… You cannot avoid sin or mistake anyway (Romans 5:12), but if you try too fervently, it often creates even worse problems.
 — Richard Rohr

The ‘way down’ is the only ‘way up’.

We must embrace our suffering and see the blessings it provides.

We must see suffering, not as something shameful, but as a natural event that allows parts of ourselves to die so that new parts of us can be birthed.

This view doesn’t fit into our Western philosophy of progress. We’re all about the ‘hockey stick growth’ — ‘up and to the right’. We see success as #winning. Or #crushingit.

We see suffering as being for the poor, unfortunate, and downtrodden. Not for ‘us’. We’re big into ‘engineering our own superiority systems’, as Rohr would say, to where we don’t allow suffering at all.

But I say this…

Real transformation can come only through suffering.

The avoidance of suffering only prolongs and intensifies the suffering when it does strike. It’s an ego move that adds layers of disappointment, embarrassment, projection, blame, denial, etc. on top of it.

The ego sees suffering as something we must suppress and push aside rather than lay ourselves bare to.

Like a wound wrapped up in a dirty, sweaty sock, all it does is fester and eat at us from the inside-out before re-emerging in unexpected, harmful, violent ways.

A last word from Fr. Rohr…

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.

The way down is the way up. Or the way up is the way down. Same difference.

Human perfection isn’t found in perfection. It’s found in how we handle our imperfection.

This is where holiness is hidden. We find the growth of our soul in the depths of our pain, not when we’re piously floating above it.

And so I pray that you suffer. May you suffer well. May you suffer fully. May you not be ashamed in your suffering, but rather enlivened. And may your soul soar to new heights on the other side of that suffering.


For more on this, PLEASE read Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life from Richard Rohr. #mindblown


Jonas Ellison is a spiritual writer, teacher, practitioner, and an interfaith minister-in-training. He helps people deepen their lives through applied spirituality while documenting his journey along the way.

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