Making meaning out of suffering

Image credit: © 2011 exezippdf, from Flickr | used via CC-BY licensing

Part of being human seems to be the need to find meaning in the things that happen to us in life. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to those things which cause us suffering.

Most of us are desperate to find meaning in our suffering in the hope it will bring some alleviation of the depth of our suffering and pain.

But in my experience it’s never actually worked that way. Meaning is something that has grown out of the healing process, not something that causes the healing to begin with.

Feeling the pain

When something in our life breaks, most of us want healing to happen quickly so we can avoid as much of the pain of our situation as possible.

This makes sense—pain is unpleasant and disruptive—but our attempts to avoid the pain derail the healing process. The road to healing goes right through the center of the pain.

It is only through feeling the pain, befriending it, and then releasing it that we find healing.

Many people will come along and attempt to prescribe a meaning to your pain and suffering during this stage, but these rationalizations laid on us by others just add to the pain at this point. They are thinly disguised attempts to circumvent our pain for their own comfort.

No matter how well meant, these outside attempts to assign meaning too early are not helpful. Nor is it helpful in the midst of our pain to apply these meanings to ourselves.

We may begin to try on different meanings—or stories about what happened—at this point, but they will continue to shift and change as healing progresses and we are able to see more clearly.

Letting go of why

Early in the grief process, it is common to feel a strong need to know why this has happened. We often think that knowing why will give us the meaning that we seek.

The truth is that we can seldom fully know the why of anything that happens, and to the degree that we do get answers to the why question, they tell us more about an explanation than about meaning.

Explanation may help lead us to meaning, but meaning is always deeper and more complex.

Our craving for a why often stems as much from a desire for control and safety than for meaning. If we could thoroughly understand why things happen, then we would be more able to protect ourselves by making sure they don’t happen again.

Part of the healing process often involves letting go of this need to know why in order to allow more meaning to blossom in its stead.

Choosing your own meaning

The meaning we find in our lives is a highly personalized thing, and this is especially true when it comes to our places of brokenness and pain. Two people going through the same thing may emerge with very different stories about the meaning.

Our own meaning is one that we construct in the healing process as we begin to see how our experience has changed us on deeper levels. We ultimately have the freedom to choose the meaning for ourselves.

This means that we do not need to accept those attempts at meaning that others tried to lay on us in the process. It also means that as we try on various meanings for ourselves, we can make a point of choosing to nurture the meanings that are most life-giving instead of those that make us smaller.

Let me give you an example. In my 20s, I dated someone on and off for several years who had decided early on in the relationship that I just didn’t measure up. I was too short, too young (five years younger), not pretty enough, and my chosen career was not prestigious or lucrative enough to meet his standards.

I suffered greatly through the ups and downs of this relationship as I did everything I could to try to be good enough for him, but it ultimately was without success.

I moved on to other relationships, but it seemed that I kept repeating this same dynamic over and over until the pain became so intense that I was forced to stop running from it into a new relationship and face it head on.

As I worked through my grief, I came to realize that the real issue was that I was convinced that I was not good enough. In an effort to prove to myself that I was good enough, I kept finding hard to please people to form relationships with in the hopes that gaining their approval would finally demonstrate to myself that I was good enough.

(You’ll note that this is a why explanation. It was a very helpful insight, but it was only the first step toward meaning.)

At this point, I could choose to make my meaning be that I am simply not good enough for anyone. That would have been an easy meaning to choose, but that is not a very life-giving one.

I chose instead to work toward a meaning that tells me that love isn’t about earning or being good enough. As I learn to love myself just as I am, the relationships I choose to be in will be ones that support that instead of being a means to attempt to prove my worth.

You’ll note that this meaning has little to do with why, but is instead about what I’ve learned about life in general and about myself as I go forward.

That meaning has made a radical difference in my life and my relationships in a good way, even though it involved some intense inner work to reach that point.

Nurturing the gold

Once we have reached the point in the healing process where we have created meaning from what happened to us, our work turns toward nurturing that meaning into the gold that we take from it.

In my case, this has meant learning how to nurture my own self-love and self-respect even when faced with the (many) times that I fall short of my ideals. It has also meant learning to choose different kinds of relationships that felt uncomfortably unfamiliar at first.

There are many kinds of grief that run even deeper than this example that I have given, and I want to make a note again that finding meaning and gold in our healing does not mean that we need to come to a place of being grateful that the brokenness happened to us or thinking the original brokenness to be good.

It also does not mean that whatever happened in order to teach us that lesson. The why is not necessarily connected to meaning in that way.

We can choose to find meaning and gold in our healing without ever needing to be glad for the things that hurt us.

Questions to ponder

How have these dynamics played out in your life?

Can you think of situations where you’ve moved far enough into the healing process to find meaning for yourself in what happened? How has that meaning been connected or not connected to any why explanation you may have?

As you consider meaning, how often have you taken time to explicitly state the meaning you’ve come away with? What kinds of meaning have you chosen for things that have happened to you? As a hint, look at how those experiences have changed the way you understand yourself or others or life in general.

Where are you in this process of healing and creating meaning in whatever might be causing you suffering now?

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