Suffering and Spirituality
So much modern spiritual practice suggests that our faith will bring us wonderful things during our lives. Many modern spiritual seekers are taught that here on Planet Earth we all deserve good things, and we all deserve the same good things. We all deserve to be healthy, and we all deserve to be wealthy.
If we do not have health or wealth we must have done something wrong, either in thought or action, to no longer deserve these things.
I think the word "deserve" needs to be thrown out the window. This is a word we use to judge each other. This is a word we use to justify greed. This is a word we use to overblow our importance on the planet.
Do we, as spiritual people, tell the person who just lost his legs in an accident that he didn't deserve legs? Do we believe some appallingly angry god didn’t want him to have legs? Should he believe that his own negative thoughts cost him his legs?
There are many spiritual teachers of many religions who teach exactly that.
Many people struggle with the concept that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and that good things sometimes happen for people who don't seem to "deserve them."
Social media is filled with memes about "karma," as if karma is some kind of hateful payback machine.
Some of these memes suggest that we should take delight in watching our enemies suffering and getting what they "deserve."
On the other end of the spiritual spectrum are religions whose beliefs include the need for self-inflicted suffering. There are Islamic sects that encourage even young children to celebrate certain holidays by slashing themselves with razor blades.
Research has revealed that Mother Teresa denied the children in her care pain-killers and hygiene because their suffering would bring them closer to Jesus.
Some traditions of modern Paganism practice scourging (ritual beating) to increase discipline and hasten enlightenment.
What do we learn from looking at these wildly divergent perspectives on suffering and spirituality?
Here's what I think.
If you live on Planet Earth you will suffer. Sometimes your suffering will be visible to others. Sometimes it will be something that no one else can see.
We can use that inevitable suffering to help us grow, learn and become stronger. Our suffering can increase our enlightenment and spiritual understanding, or our suffering can separate us from our Higher Power. It all depends on how we use our suffering, and how we find meaning in it.
Blessings and suffering are never about what we deserve. As soon as we start thinking in terms of what we, or what other people, deserve (good or bad) we have missed the point completely.
If we compare our scorecard of blessings vs. suffering to other people's scorecards we have also missed the point.
If we, as adults, chose ritual deprivation, scarification or mutilation to aid us spiritually, that's fine. If we choose it for our children we are not spiritual, we are abusive.
When we are suffering it is appropriate to think about how we have invited that into our lives, how we can heal from it and how we can learn from it. It is not appropriate to immediately assume that all suffering is subconsciously self-induced, or visited upon us as punishment from a Higher Power. Sometimes the Universe sets up challenges for us to bring us to a place of spiritual understanding. Sometimes we need to go through difficulty to get to something better.
When we see others suffer it is important for us to lend aid in whatever way we can. If we delight in the sufferings of others, even of those who have wronged us, we have again missed the point.
What is the point? Every spiritual text, every divination tool and everything in my being says that the point is love. The point is always love. The point is never vengeance. The point is never about balancing the scales to the satisfaction of the individual.
When we suffer, love is our salvation. When others suffer, we have the opportunity to grow in our service to them; in our understanding of love.
Neither great wealth nor great poverty can enhance our understanding of love. Neither great fortune nor great adversity can keep up from love. Nothing can shield us from a certain amount of suffering, either, and that's as it should be.