Reflections on Suffering

I wrote this piece for school, and since it’s Lent I thought it would be the perfect time to share it here. Suffering is an oft-avoided topic, but I think we do ourselves a disservice when we skirt around the issue. I would love to hear your take on the value of suffering in the comments!

Shall I despise you that your colorless tears
Made rainbows in your lashes, and you forgot to weep?
Would we were half so wise, that eke a grief out
By sitting in the dark until we fall asleep.

I only fear lest, being by nature sunny,
By and by you will weep no more at all,
And fall asleep in the light, having lost with the tears
The color in the lashes that comes as tears fall.

I would not have you darken your lids with weeping
Beautiful eyes, but I would have you weep enough
To wet the fingers of the hand held over the eye-lids
And stain a little the white frock's delicate stuff.

For there came to mind, as I watched you winking the tears down,
Laughing faces, blown from the west and the east,
Faces lovely and proud that I have prized and cherished,
Nor were the loveliest among them those that had wept the least.

                                                               "To a Young Girl," by Edna St. Vincent Millay

It’s rather a radical idea in our culture that suffering can be good, that it can transform us for the better. Most people are willing to use any means necessary to escape fear, pain, and sorrow—even accepting the shackles of addiction in order to avoid emotional vulnerability, whether with themselves or with others. The culture tells us that anything which causes us even the slightest emotional discomfort should be cut out of our lives, that it’s “toxic” and is keeping us from being the best version of ourselves.

But what if the truest, most real, most beautiful version of ourselves could only be discovered through suffering? What if the answer to hard emotions is not to bury our heads in the sand and hope they go away but to lean into them, giving ourselves the time and space to fully experience all of the feelings that come our way without allowing ourselves to be dominated by fear, despair, or rage?

True mental health does not mean sweeping scary feelings under the rug and trying to erase all pain from our lives. Our lives will always include pain in some form or another. When we not only accept suffering, but realize that it can be redemptive, it is no longer something to fear, but rather a challenge, an opportunity to grow as a person, a fire that refines us like precious metals.

In her poem “To a Young Girl,” Millay describes “Faces lovely and proud that I have prized and cherished, / Nor were the loveliest among them those that had wept the least.” The realization that suffering makes us better people allows us to have a truly positive attitude, not a falsely optimistic outlook that refuses to acknowledge suffering at all, in the past, present, or future. It is only through full acceptance of the lows of life that we can attain full enjoyment of the highs.

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