Reflections on Suffering

mirrored reflection in a bowl

mirrored reflection in a bowl

In his book, Catching the Big FishDavid Lynch includes a chapter on the topic of suffering and states, “It’s common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be.  It’s less likely that he is going to enjoy his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work.”

Lynch goes on to state:  “Right here people might bring up Vincent Van Gogh as an example of a painter who did great work in spite of – or because of – his suffering.  I like to think that Van Gogh would have been more prolific and even greater if he wasn’t so restricted by the things tormenting him.  I don’t think it was pain that made him so great- I think his painting brought him whatever happiness he had.”

Do you agree with Lynch and think that the experience of suffering is one that can confine and hold you back from reaching your personal goals?  Or, do you think that the experience of suffering actually makes one stronger and more able to succeed?

I admit that I’ve leaned toward the Kelly Clarkson-song-lyric-approach to suffering, agreeing with her lyric, ”What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  For years, I’ve thought that Jane Fonda’sno pain, no gain” exercise motto could be applied to much more than exercise in life.

Of late, though, I’m starting to reconsider my long-held view on the role of suffering and challenge in life.  I’m beginning to wonder whether internal strength is only tested through suffering rather than strengthened by it.

What do you think?  Have the challenges that you’ve faced in your life made you stronger or weaker as an individual?

Consider the individuals highlighted in the article, “16 Wildly Successful Individuals Who Overcame Huge Obstacles To Get There.”  Do you think the challenges that they faced helped them to be successful, or do you think that they might have been even more successful otherwise?

Since life is full of challenges, all of us will never really know how successful or unsuccessful we might be without them, but it’s interesting to ponder how we might fare in life without suffering.

For example:  Who would Nelson Mandela have been had he never faced apartheid and been wrongfully imprisoned?  Who would Rosa Parks have been had she never faced racial segregation and been asked to give up her bus seat that day in Alabama?  Who would Beethoven have been had he never lost his hearing?

Like Lynch, I’d like to think that Mandela, Parks, and Beethoven would have been just as great, if not greater, as individuals had they never faced those famous challenges.

Yes, I’m beginning to think that challenges don’t serve to make us stronger but, instead, like a mirror, reflect our true selves, as strong or weak as we may be.


  1. Walt Fletcher says:

    Hey Ruth, Jennifer forwarded your blog to me because I taught on suffering in class yesterday. There are so many different perspectives from which you could approach this question so the “correct” answer is always going to be a function of the worldview of the reader. For example, my worldview is biblical, therefore I believe Scripture teaches that all suffering is meant to strengthen our faith in God, not necessarily ourselves. God told Paul that He was not going to remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’ because “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). James tells us in chapter 1 verses 2-4 that trials and tribulations perfect our faith in God so that we may be (spiritually) perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Paul goes on to say therefore “I will be content in my weaknesses so that the power of Christ might rest upon me.”

    As a Christian, we know that our power to accomplish what we couldn’t accomplish on our own comes from the power of the Holy Spirit living within us so for me, the sufferings I face are intended to focus my attention on the One who has the power to give me the strength to respond in ways far greater than I ever could have on my own. Though sufferings are unpleasant in the midst of them, I gave our class 25 ways that Scripture specifically states we are spiritually strengthened by our God who has the power to redeem every suffering we face.

    There are many other worldviews from which this could be viewed but I’ll give you one other and then back to work (LOL!!!): most people readily relate to suffering emotionally and physically (my biblical worldview above would be referred to as ‘soulically’). In a healthy state, any typical event acting upon our emotions or physical being may not harm us but actually cause us to grow (exercise breaks down a muscle or takes our breath away but with normal, typical persistent use, our muscles tone, grow, or get stronger and our cardiovascular system improves with signs of better blood pressures, pulses and breathing capabilities) with continued exercise.

    However, those same healthy activities acting upon a body may harm or even kill an individual who is in a diseased state. I went from being a healthy male who could do miraculous things (ha ha) to a diseased male who cannot stand up or walk for more than a couple hundred yards before my legs and lungs are crying out in pain. But to look at me, I look like a weight-lifter because my disease builds mass while it eats away at my stamina. The exercise defeats me emotionally and physically therefore I “run” from it; yet, the pain it brings motivates me to do more docile things I otherwise would not have been motivated to do. And in or one or more of those areas, I might have knowingly or unknowingly been “good” but now I might become “excellent” because I spend more time doing it. Would I have done the docile had I never suffered from not being able to walk or run? No, my suffering led me (and leads me) to do things I would have never done before. It refocuses my motivation that I might work within my “new normal.” Which, in the end, takes me back to my soulical worldview.

    It is my belief that our sovereign God can redeem all suffering–mine, yours, and anyone’s who chooses to believe upon Him–so that our pain is not wasted. Jennifer and I have dear friends who lost their 12 year old son two years ago and he constantly tells me, “don’t waste your pain!” Therefore, I seek God daily for direction on ways I can “not waste my pain” “within my new normal.” We are His creation and we are created for a purpose that glorifies His mercy and grace; as I search for my new purpose within Him, therein is my comfort and my hope within my suffering.

    And yes, I do believe that I can still do great things in spite of my suffering…I’m just painting on a different canvas. And it’s not the painting itself that I see as beautiful, it’s the fact that I am painting something I never would have painted and others see it as beautiful. They know my pain, they know my struggle, and they know my desire to be strong again. But through my “pain”ting, they can know the God of all love, mercy, grace, peace, comfort, strength and hope. In the end, that’s all that really matters.

    • Great to hear from you, Walt, and THANK YOU for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful response to one of my posts.

      I’m so glad that Jennifer and you found the content interesting and comment-worthy! I’m very sorry to learn of the disease that you’ve been facing but am inspired by your response to it. I especially enjoyed reading your comments, “my suffering led me (and leads me) to do things I would have never done before,” and, “It refocuses my motivation that I might work within my ‘new normal,’ which, in the end, takes me back to my soulical worldview.”

      As a Christian, I share your belief in a sovereign God who can redeem all the suffering of those who choose to believe upon Him. I believe in the Revelation 21:4 line of scripture: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

      I also agree with you that you still can do great things — your response to my post being one example. You are an amazing writer!! Your words about your current experience “pain”ting were beautiful, and you can count me as someone who is inspired by your courage and “lifeart.”

      Thanks again, Walt, and wishing you, Jennifer and your family nothing but continued courage and all the best!

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