Is there value in suffering? That is the question posed by Denver’s Brent Green, a nationally-recognized speaker and author about baby boomers, including his newest book “Questions of the Spirit: The Quest for Understanding at a Time of Loss.” As Brent says, we are just one question away from an entirely different life. That makes sense when you read this excerpt.
As is true for most over age 50, I have lost many significant persons in my life: cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, business colleagues, and parents. After each loss, I have grieved privately, rarely reaching out to others when I could have benefited from sympathetic advice or a steady shoulder.
Then we lost my sister to stage IV lung cancer, leaving me as the final surviving member of my nuclear family. I did not seek grief support when losing Julie, but an unexpected approach to counseling walked through the front door to her home, and this has made a significant difference.
Julie passed away while receiving hospice care. Mark McGann, an easygoing chaplain, visited her home a few days before she died. He asked our family to gather around a dining room table. We were sleep-deprived, anxious, and grief-stricken. He asked, “Is there value in suffering?”
When Chaplain Mark asserted this question, our wife-mother-sister-grandmother was dying in the master bedroom ten yards away. That moment was as raw as life can be, Julie’s departure imminent, the question of her suffering a lingering concern. We were tormented.
But his question cut to the core of an intense, immediate encounter with mortality. The question required us to get in touch with our feelings in those final hours before Julie passed and provided an avenue to answers where sometimes there are no obvious responses.
First, I became analytical: suffering is fundamental to the human condition. Suffering creates a vivid contrast illuminating joy, happiness, and satisfaction. It is a harsh lesson on the other side of sublime. We all must suffer whether we choose to or not. But rationalization did not assuage such dark grief.
Several weeks passed, and then I recalled the misty days following the deaths of our parents who passed away less than one day apart in July 2000. I had stumbled through this time in a thick, murky fog, slogging through routine and work, numb and disillusioned. Then my wife, Becky, and I decided we needed a spontaneous break from unresolved grief, so we traveled to Amsterdam, Holland.
We became spellbound with the ancient Dutch city, the canals, exceptionally friendly natives, and an all-pervading creative vibe. From Rembrandt’s original painting studio to a modern museum showcasing the magnum opus of Vincent van Gogh, we walked in the footsteps of the Masters.
I responded by taking hundreds of photos of the Dutch people being themselves, such as mothers on bicycles transporting towhead toddlers and innovative mimes frozen solid near intersections. I captured visual stories of a European setting very different from our Denver home. I allowed my senses to take in all that life can offer when we are alert, present, and open to new experiences.
When we returned from Holland, I transformed my photos into digitally printed posters. Nine months after our parents had passed away, I hosted an exhibition at a popular gourmet coffee shop where my framed photographs remained on display for several weeks.
Without suffering I would not have traveled to Amsterdam when we did, nor would I have seen what I saw: transitory instants when visual elements aligned under optimum lighting conditions. I would not have mastered Photoshop so I could perfect my images for digital printing. I would not have taken creative risks involved in sharing my work.
Helen Keller became afflicted by meningitis at nineteen months. The illness left her sightless and deaf. Nevertheless, she became the first blind and deaf person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She wrote and published twelve books and lectured worldwide. She experienced suffering from a perspective that would incapacitate many. Quite the opposite, she wrote: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
Suffering motivated me to re-engage with a productive life. I transformed the foreign, figuratively and literally, into something accessible. Suffering can precipitate creativity, liberating the creator through inspiration and then many available channels of human communication including painting, sculpting, songwriting, personal essays, poetry, photography, and videos. Therefore, I discovered there is value in suffering.
Those of us who receive the blessing of a long life will also need to understand and manage grief and loss many times throughout our lives. Loss is a requisite part of the aging process and the human experience. Yet we have the innate power to “flip non-being into being” in our quest to move forward after loss. Whether it’s writing, painting, photography, dance, crafts, or some other form of pure self-expression, our creativity can reveal the value of suffering.