“Imagine, if you will, a gift … picture it in your mind. It’s not too big—about the size of a golf ball.”
In three brilliant minutes in front of the TED crowd, Stacey Kramer captivated her audience with the description of a small gift. She claimed it would drastically improve lives, strengthen relationships, and make one feel loved. She continued on, revealing the many benefits of this tiny present. While I watched, I became eager to find out where I could get one. Then she revealed that underneath the packaging, the gift was not so pretty.
It was a brain tumor.
Though Stacey didn’t wish this experience on anyone else, she shared about the profound ways in which cancer impacted and improved her life.
After I watched this talk on YouTube for the first time, I shut my laptop and sat alone in my bedroom. My gaze locked on the grainy ceiling above me. I was baffled. Could it be that suffering—especially in such great magnitude—is actually a gift?
Our culture has a hard time swallowing this radical idea. I do as well. As our society fixates on the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure, it can be confusing to think that hardship could be positive. And perhaps it is inaccurate to classify suffering as positive. It is not that trials should be sought out, as Stacey acknowledged. Rather, when we encounter hardship, we also encounter a significant opportunity that was previously nonexistent in a state of contentment and ease. Amidst the deepest of suffering is the freedom to love, to grow, and to find meaning in life. This is the gift of suffering.
While discussing abortion, I am often asked the question, “What if the child is going to suffer?” I have spoken with countless people who, often out of genuine concern, contemplate the permissibility of abortion in cases such as these. Maybe the baby has Down’s Syndrome, maybe the kid will end up in foster care, or maybe the child will be raised in poverty. These circumstances would certainly be difficult to bear, but one must ask themselves the following: Do our circumstances justify the killing of an innocent human being?
First of all, in light of human experience, isn’t it more accurate to ask when will one suffer, not what if one suffers? Is not pain inevitable to us all regardless of our environments or circumstances? Of course a child will suffer. We all suffer in some way or another. Albeit to varying degrees, hardships are ordinary, not extraordinary experiences. The inevitability of suffering should change how we view it altogether.
Furthermore, the attitude that suffering justifies death contradicts what we instinctively believe about dignity and suffering. When we think of characters in history or literature who inspire us, we think of those who suffered and overcame hardship and turned obstacles into opportunities. Think of a tenacious cancer survivor or a brave martyr for justice. In this way, we see that suffering showcases dignity, not diminishes it. Yet when it comes to the issues of human life, our society claims that the two are mutually exclusive. For example, abortion supporters use the case of suffering as a reason to kill. They say that where there is suffering, there is no human dignity. Towards the end of life, euthanasia supporters say that dignity cannot coexist with suffering, so one must “die with dignity” to end suffering prematurely. But this is a false dichotomy. If all human beings have human rights and are therefore equal, then suffering has no bearing on dignity. Instead, we see that when sufferers find meaning in their trials, their human dignity becomes all the more evident.
It might seem strange to take such a logical approach to the deepest of pain. But this reasoning is applied in a personal way to me. A friend of mine struggles with anxiety. At times, her heart pounds, her gut turns, and she silently chokes back tears. She suffers: yet, she has dignity.
Professionals teach that during an anxiety attack, only one thing can be controlled: breathing. Someone suffering from anxiety cannot change their heart rate or brain chemistry, but can slow down their breathing to a steady rate, which in turn signals the rest of their body to calm down. Suffering is similar. We cannot dictate many things in life, including our genetics, our history, or our circumstances. But there is one thing that even when all is taken from us, we hold in complete control. Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl remarked, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We often get a sour taste in our mouths when we think about future suffering. Certain life events can be unspeakably painful. I truly hope to not belittle suffering, or flippantly dismiss sorrow and grief. Though, imagine for a moment, if we looked at pain with a different perspective. Imagine if we accepted that suffering is inevitable, that dignity is seen clearer in suffering, and that all things can be taken from us except our response to suffering. Then what remains is an opportunity and a choice.
Victor Frankl defines despair as suffering without meaning. In his work as a therapist, he strove to help his patients see meaning in their circumstances, and found that once meaning was stirred, motivation to thrive followed. He observed that understanding and purpose took deeper roots in the lives of some of the most afflicted people. Frankl himself survived grueling life in the German concentration camps and emerged stronger with a fresh set of eyes to view the world, with a much fuller vision of life. Meaning can be grasped in particularly profound ways during times of trouble, as light always appears brighter in darkness. Sweetness is much richer when juxtaposed with bitterness. Life’s meaning becomes deeper through suffering.
The gift of suffering is the opportunity for meaning. How will we receive it? Will we choose despair or meaning? Will we avoid the gift or embrace it?
At the end of her presentation, Stacey Kramer looked out at the crowd with tearful eyes.
“So,” she concluded, “The next time you’re faced with something that’s unexpected, unwanted and uncertain, consider that it just may be a gift.”