What do the world’s sacred traditions reveal about suffering? Does it have any meaning? How does it serve our purpose on this earthly journey? All Faiths share a virtues perspective, which is the key. They tell us that to reap the most joy and meaning from this short life, we need an attitude of openness and even gratitude during periods of hardship or grief. Our testing times are not meant to be merely endured, but understood as teachable moments, and virtues are the lesson plans.
So, when life seems hard, think of yourself as a spiritual champion, whose Coach is pushing you to your very limits, not to make you suffer, but to train you in strength, to stretch your capacity for greatness. Everything that comes to you is a gift. Baha’u’llah, Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote: “[I] have ordained for thy training every atom in existence.” (Hidden Words Persian 29)
Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” And “Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.” This is the essence of the virtues strategy of Recognizing Teachable Moments.
A young woman recently discovered that she has breast cancer. After an initial reaction of shock and grief, she opened herself to what she calls “my healing journey” with courage and hope, “eager to see what teachable moments are in store for me and my husband.”
This approach to life is not some Pollyanna, “make nice” approach. It is facing and honoring our feelings — the tears, the rage, the confusion — with deep compassion for ourselves. Then, through reflection, prayer, journaling or talking to a good spiritual companion, we open to the Grace of the situation — the learning that is our soul work.
Jesus’s experience in the garden of Gethsemane is a powerful example for all of us. I think of it as “The Gethsemane Secret”. Jesus knew he was going to be killed, and all he asked was that his disciples “keep watch” with him, so he wouldn’t face it alone. And what did they do? They fell asleep — twice. Alone with God, Christ discovered the most profound courage and strength possible, through an act of total surrender to the Divine will: (Mathew 26: 36 – 56) “…he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’ And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not watch with me one hour?’ He prayed again, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’”
First, Jesus admitted he was sorrowful to death. He felt the sorrow. He suffered the betrayal of his closest companions. He realized he could rely only on God. Then, after asking to be relieved of his fate, he asked that God’s will, not his own, be done. In our own Gethsemane times, we must know what we feel, acknowledge what we wish, yet be open to our destiny. To trust even in the darkest times, that the Divine has a greater plan for us than we have for ourselves, is our true soul work. Trust is transformational. It leads to resurrection, the fulfillment of our purpose and our joy. “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary, walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
Another virtues facilitator endured several catastrophes in a short time – the death of both her parents, the murder of her son, and a head injury sustained when a stewardess dropped something heavy on her. She has moved through all this, open to the waves of grief, in touch with her soul as never before. She has never been more radiant and, as she put it, “whole-hearted.” She now plans to work with trauma victims to help them come back to themselves.
Some suffering is not creative at all — the pain we cause ourselves through our own misconduct and destructive choices. But a spiritually rich life involves meeting our tests with courage, open to the teachable moments that bring us closer to our true calling. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Composer Leonard Cohen in an homage to Rumi wrote in his magnificent song, “Anthem”, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The Japanese have an exquisite, centuries-old tradition, called Kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold marking its cracks. In this way, they celebrate the beauty of brokenness. There is such sweet freedom in recognizing our cracks, loving our wounds, open to the messages they bring.