Finding Joy in the Midst of Suffering

L & N Tunnel at Palmyra, TN
Photo by Katie Rea

“Suffering, of course, can lead you in either of two directions: It can make you very bitter and close you down, or it can make you wise, compassionate, and utterly open, either because your heart has been softened, or perhaps because suffering makes you feel like you have nothing more to lose.”

Richard Rohr

It was not my plan to talk about suffering this week. In fact, I tried to avoid the topic like the plague. (Oops, see what I did there? Never mind.) But the topic came up repeatedly this week. I read a daily meditation from Richard Rohr about suffering (hence the quote above), listened to a Sunday sermon on
the topic, read about suffering in my Ignatian Retreat manual, and read about it in a vocation book.

Whenever I see a certain pattern like this, I have learned to tune in and pay attention.

A bit of background to my readers: The most difficult part of my job in healthcare was watching people suffer.  This was even noted by a supervisor doing a performance evaluation: “Katie, you do know you are an empath, right?”  As an empath, I’ve found that I can feel other people’s emotions. I describe it as I “absorb” their happiness, sadness, and anger in that moment.

I remember a particular visit with two different clients which left me reeling—I felt my world was off-kilter momentarily. I visited one woman who had stage three cancer. I had expected this visit to be sad and difficult, but it was an amazingly pleasant visit. She welcomed me in and was delighted by my visit.
Which is not always the case when insurance people come calling. She was positive and enthusiastic about life and was hopeful she had more life to live. We talked about the cancer treatment and other health concerns and she told me of her wonderful doctors. She showed me pictures of her children and
we talked about her life in general. She even asked me about my life. Somehow, I left her home feeling lighter and optimistic.

I looked at the chart for the next visit. The only health problem listed on this lady’s chart was acne. I figured this one would be the easiest visit ever. No diabetes, heart disease, no mental health or substance abuse issues (at least listed), no obesity, and certainly no cancer. This was a good client to end
with for the day.

I was naive.

The client was unhappy about my visit despite confirming our appointment. I walked into a dark and gloomy room. As we were talking, it seemed the bigger issue was the acne had damaged her confidence. She felt ugly on the outside and so her world view seemed ugly. I didn’t see much acne on her skin for this visit, though I’m sure it was worse prior to treatment. Even though she didn’t have documented depression, I went ahead and followed my instincts and gave her a depression screening and provided
her mental health resources. After this visit, I felt discouraged and depressed.

I remember going to a public park close by and just sitting there for a few minutes absorbing my last two clients of the day. How could someone facing the possibility and uncertainty of death be happier than the person whose only documented illness was acne? It was possible I caught the lady with cancer on a good day and the lady with acne on a bad day. Obviously, there were some unseen factors I couldn’t necessarily know about the people I visited that day. “Happiness”, “suffering” and “sadness” are also
subjective terms.

After a decade of work in non-profit and healthcare fields, I found we can sometimes choose how much happiness or suffering we can experience. I found over time, a person who has a long list of major heath concerns could be “happier” than a person with minor health concerns.

I watched a man who had a stroke and was relearning how to walk was “happier” than the person who had broken his leg in a car accident. I even saw people who had identical health concerns whose level of happiness was different.

It was not the circumstances which necessarily caused the suffering; it was their reaction to the circumstances. Some people treated the accident or illness as an unfairness or an imposition. Others, accepted the reality of their situations and saw them as a challenge to overcome. Some people isolated
themselves during the disaster and others reached out to others—family members, churches or people in their community. Isolation can be healthy in the short term, but research has shown that valued social connections are important for our health and happiness.

Those who had a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness felt they deserved what
happened to them, those who had more self-esteem or faith felt a sense of hope in the midst of their struggles. They may have experienced the despair, but it was not the end result. Hope allowed for more.

Those who were “happier” also allowed for a healthy level of self-compassion and self-care. Instead of hating themselves for having the infliction, they cared for themselves through the difficulty. They were pro-active rather than reactive.

I realize we cannot always help what happens to us, suffering is an unfortunate fact of life. But, as Richard Rohr points out, we can choose how we react to our suffering. We can “close down” or have our “heart softened.” The faithful can choose to distance themselves from God or open themselves to God. People can deny and ignore the problems or honestly deal with the problems and even seek professional help*.

I recently read an article in an Ignatian retreat I would like to share: “…Even when Jesus saw His love for others was repaid by hatred, He knew that the Father wanted Him to keep loving. He trusted the Father’s love. ‘Not my will, but yours be done.’ You can be tempted to think that God doesn’t love you
when you develop cancer or your finances tank or your young leave the Church. You are in the middle of a mystery here, but believe that no matter what human disorder inflicts on you, God’s love is steady. Jesus believed that when He said ‘your will be done.’”

The theological principle of suffering has always been a difficult topic for me. I do not understand fully why we have suffering in the world. Even so, I acknowledge suffering as a fact of life. Despite suffering, I have seen time and again how hope can prevail. I offer you this option of hope in the midst of your suffering.

*Note: I have seen many people with depression or other mental health issues who try to deal with it on their own. They may view themselves as failures for not being happy or for having to take medicines “to live normal lives”. I personally have dealt with depression and needed professional help and medicines temporarily, so please see a doctor and mental health professional if you are struggling with any mental health concerns.

Additional Resources:

Also, this is an opinion piece based on situations I’ve observed. This is not being offered as medical advice.

Ackels, Carol Atwell and Joseph A. Tetlow, S.J. Finding Christ in the World: A Twelve Week Ignatian Retreat in Everyday Life. The Institute of Jesuit Sources. Chestnut Hill, MA, 2017

Rohr, Richard. The Naked Now: Learning To See As the Mystics See. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009

Ted Talk on Happiness by Robert Waldinger


2 responses to “Finding Joy in the Midst of Suffering”

  1. annetscaryahoocom Avatar

    Your writing is wonderful. Love this piece on suffering. Also the photo you took. Always enjoy looking at your photos on Facebook.


    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Thank you, Anne. I appreciate the feedback!


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