You stand on the scale. Calculating, calculating, it reads. Then, a number appears. A number that represents your hard work. A number that either fills you with pride or brings you down a peg. Today, it’s the latter. You stare at the number blinking before you. Frustration begins to boil up.
You don’t get it. You just don’t get it.
Each day you put in the effort. You practice intention with what you eat. You exercise deliberately. Yet the scale refuses to show what you yearn to see. Internally, a knot forms at the base of your ribs. It is small and tightly coiled. It is anger, sadness, annoyance. And, it is suffering.
However, little do you know that your suffering is the catalyst for something great to come.
A monk and a bishop
In The Book of Joy, coauthors Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama talk on the merits of suffering. Archbishop Tutu explains that suffering either ennobles you or embitters you. It empowers you or crushes you. That said, he notes that so long as you can find a shred of meaning within your suffering, it will ennoble you and allow you to grow.
He then tells the story of Nelson Mandela.
Before becoming President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela spends nearly three decades in jail. He goes into prison angry, aggressive, and combative. At the time, he is the head of his party’s military wing and is pro-violence. Yet when he leaves some 27 years later, Mandela reenters the world compassionate, kind, and empathetic.
Mandela uses his suffering as a catalyst for growth. It does not embitter him, it ennobles him.
The compassion of a prisoner
Archbishop Tutu is then asked what it is about Mandela’s suffering that allows him to grow instead of crumble. The archbishop explains that growth comes from an encounter with frustration or strife. That when you get hit and knocked off course, it’s up to you to find your way back to the path.
Nelson Mandela eventually finds his way back through compassion. Archbishop Tutu says that, generally speaking, when one is hit, one hits back. However, the refined individual thinks of their aggressor. Of why they hit them in the first place. They put themself in the shoes of the other. And it is that generosity of spirit that allows Mandela to remove the separateness between him and his enemy. To develop empathy and kindness.
In other words, as Archbishop Tutu explains, you grow in kindness when your kindness is tested.
To suffer is to grow
Replace kindness in the sentence above with whatever you are struggling with. If it’s muscle gain, the sentence becomes you grow in strength when your strength is tested. Change it to business and it is you grow in business when your business is tested.
Adversity causes growth.
Suffering is often avoided at all costs. Better to be safe at home than to risk something bad happening out in the world. But, Archbishop Tutu suggests suffering is a signal of growth. You can use it to reach a new level or you can let it consume you. Nelson Mandela used it to grow. He derived meaning from his suffering and it was that meaning that kept him moving forward. He was not to suffer for nothing.
Rather, his suffering would serve a purpose.
The future of a Holocaust survivor
Nelson Mandela is not the only historical figure to use suffering to his advantage. Viktor Frankl did so as well. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl explains that his pursuit of meaning is what allows him to survive imprisonment in WWII concentration camps.
While others around him perish, he continues on.
Frankl is a psychiatrist. At the time of his capture, he has been working on a new theory. As he enters the camps, death surrounds him. Suffering is a natural state. But instead of collapsing into himself, he sees an opportunity. He tests out his new theory on himself. He is patient number one. His new approach, deemed logotherapy, uses purpose as a means for living a more fulfilled life.
Instead of ruminating or blaming one’s childhood, his approach focuses on the future. On working towards those things that add meaning to one’s life. Frankl uses the promise of seeing his family again someday and of publishing his work to give him the strength to push forward. His suffering does not embitter him. Instead, it ennobles him.
Suffering in the ordinary individual
Though I have never eaten healthier or been in better shape, I am not yet seeing the body fat percentage I desire. It is my story at the top of this article. Now, obviously, my suffering is not comparable by any means to Mandela or Frankl, to Archbishop Tutu or the Dalai Lama. However, it is likely more relatable to you.
I previously viewed suffering as something to avoid. As an indicator that things were awry. I saw suffering as the final destination on a dark road.
But now I see that’s not the case. Rather, suffering is a signal. It is not the end but is instead a fork. To the left, nobility. To the right, bitterness. It’s as if you enter a dimly lit square and assume it’s your final destination, to suddenly have the lights turn on and find you are actually at a crossroads. Suffering isn’t without a point. Rather, it is an opportunity.
Move forward with suffering
Suffering is painful. It is heart-wrenching. But it doesn’t have to be for naught. Instead, use it as a signal. In whatever realm you suffer, remind yourself of Archbishop Tutu’s wise words: You grow in X when your X is tested.
That can be in regards to your marriage or your mental health, your wealth or your intelligence.
Suffering either ennobles you or embitters you. It is not a standalone entity. You do not suffer for the sake of suffering. Rather, suffering is an opportunity for growth. It is the catalyst for a more joyous, fulfilled life.
So when you next find yourself suffering, remind yourself that it is a good thing. Find the meaning within your strife. Then, become ennobled by it.