Where there is yet life, hope remains.
What is the purpose of suffering? Is there a purpose? Is suffering necessary?
I have just listened to the audiobook of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning twice through in two days. Mr. Frankl, a survivor of four Nazi concentration camps survived his wife, both of his parents and his siblings during his internment. No stranger to suffering, he concludes in his book that while some suffering is inevitable, there are two kinds: avoidable and unavoidable.
Suffering can be either something we do to ourselves or something that is done to us or suffering can be a part of genetic or environmental processes, i.e., cancer, injury, failing health. Suffering can be physical, emotional or mental.
When going through my own situation, I often felt as though I had no right to complain about my circumstances. A nurse I worked with in a previous hospital had to have facial reconstruction surgery as a result of abuse and once held her abusive husband off with a gun while she and her children sequestered themselves in a closet. Others have not been so fortunate to make it out of the closet alive. Women and children around the globe are grossly mistreated on a daily basis. Psychological and emotional suffering with the occasional physical aggression seem to dim in the light of those stories.
Mr. Fankl makes a point that struck a chord with me.
“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
The degree of suffering is not dependent upon an outward evaluation and calculation of its significance. No matter how “great” the suffering, to the sufferer it is pervasive and weighty.
It is not the degree to which you have suffered that should determine your need to escape. This is profound because I believe it holds many more women in their current circumstances that you might expect. It is a negative twist on positive thinking.
- “It’s not as bad as…”
- “It has been worse in the past…”
- “Others have it worse than I…”
I consider thinking positively to be a good practice for counting one’s blessings or being more grateful in your life, but here it can become a lock on the door of the cage. It becomes an excuse used to stay in your current situation. Rather than being a useful tool to develop an attitude of gratitude, it becomes a crutch.
I dare say many women have used this comparison thinking to keep themselves in their cage. I am personally familiar with the concept myself. Upon reflection, would you consider yourself to be one of these women? Have you made these comparisons and used them as an excuse to allow the situation to continue and possibly worsen?
When you are tempted to allow things to continue unchecked because others have it worse or it has been worse before, consider not comparing your suffering to another’s or to another point in your own relationship but rather consider the wrongness of it. Abuse should not be viewed on a continuum where the further you travel down that path, the more wrong it is. It is wrong regardless of where it falls.
Back to Frankl’s assertion about the two types of suffering, i.e. avoidable and unavoidable, he states this:
“…meaning is possible even in spite of suffering–provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political…
Suffering as a result of an abusive relationship can be avoided. That is not to say that it is an easy thing to do, but it is a situation in which you most likely have more power than you think and your thinking is key. To consider it your cross to bear is like holding a poisonous snake by the tail and considering its venomous bites to be your lot in life when you need only to release the snake to be safe.
Now, using a continuum may be helpful in deciding whether the relationship is salvageable. The degree of severity of the abuse can determine whether you can safely stay in your relationship with the assistance of a knowledgeable counselor to find healing in your relationship, or whether you need to separate for a time or even permanently.
The Bible also talks about refining by fire, another example of positive thinking that can be twisted to keep that cage locked up tight. While this concept is definitely useful in coming through your suffering to become a whole and healthy person, it should not be used as a reason to persevere in your suffering by not holding the abusive spouse accountable for their actions.
Instead of looking at 15 years of my life as wasted and stolen, which I can say is a struggle I have from time to time, I can instead look at the time as a part of my life that has helped shape who I have become. Though the suffering was unnecessary, it was not meaningless. It did serve a purpose in my life.
I am struck by man’s capability not only to endure suffering but to live successfully after coming through it. The Bible and human history are full of stories where suffering served a greater purpose. One of the clearest being the account of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers and his subsequent rise to power that ultimately resulted in the deliverance of God’s chosen people.
While our stories may not result in a rise to power and the redemption of a nation, we do not need that in order to make the best of our suffering. We need only to become better because of it. We cannot change our past but we use the lessons we have learned to make wise choices in the future, to find the voice that had been lost, to live our life not in fear but in freedom.
Suffering, by any means, does not have to be the end of the story. It is but a chapter. How will your next chapter read?