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The Myth of Gratitude For Necessary Suffering

Posted by Sarah Stogryn on

A while back I volunteered to participate in a survey. It had been created by someone from a marginalized group and they were specifically seeking input from those 'outside'. After some fairly standard intro-type questions, it moved into something that felt strange to me and set my radar tingling. The question was along the lines of “(To help you understand our struggle) Would you be willing to experience X difficult thing that we (have) experience(d)?” I squirmed inside because I knew the answer was supposed to be yes. Like when local politicians are “blind” for a day to help them understand accessibility issues on a personal level and then (hopefully) be more open to making public policy level changes. Or how mothers are supposed to want to be sick instead of their child. Despite knowing what they were looking for, my heart’s answer was no (I’ll get to why in a bit), so I skipped the question temporarily to look at the next one. It turns out it was the first in a series of progressing questions which essentially asked just how much torture you’d be willing to endure. I’m sure they had a good reason for asking the questions the way they did but at that point I was out. Rather than complete the survey I sent them a note about why I wasn’t completing it.

This week my inner radar has been going off in a similar way, and I was reminded of that situation. Social media is filled with “decade in review” type posts, and many include stories of ordinary hardship and extraordinary traumas - BUT - they’re grateful because they learned valuable lessons or obtained some benefit from them. I’ve done the same thing myself.

You don't have to be grateful for shitty stuff
When my husband and I first married I was preparing to leave a job that cost more than it gave in a myriad of ways. I was thousands of dollars in debt but it was “ok” because those 7 years I worked there meant Nathan and I stayed in the same circles and got married. We jokingly referenced the Old Testament Bible story of how Jacob had to work for his crafty father-in-law for an extra seven years to get the wife he had originally wanted. Lol. I don’t exactly regret those non-profit job years, but I also don’t believe I *needed* them and therefore must be “grateful” for them. I don't believe those 7 years were 'necessary' in order for me to 'get' Nathan. I don’t believe they were the price I had to pay to get Nathan, because I don’t believe we only get one chance at good stuff or at becoming our best selves (fulfilling our destiny as they say). If we ‘miss the boat’, another boat with our name on it is coming. All I can really say about those years, is that I did the best I could at the time. When I knew better I started to choose better. So yes flowers can bloom after a fire burns through a forest, but that doesn’t mean you have to love the fire.There is no lesson learned through pain that isn’t more easily learned through LOVE and you can love an outcome without loving the process.

Trauma & suffering transferred is not trauma & suffering healed.
When my oldest was sick for the first time, I remember holding him and thinking “I know I’m supposed to want to be sick instead of him but I don’t. It makes no sense. Transferring the suffering doesn’t relieve the suffering. And I don’t need to experience suffering personally in my body to know that its suffering or to have empathy or to be motivated to take action. I can see my child hurts so I will pour everything I can into restoring his health. But wishing myself sick instead is a waste of energy. Energy that would be better spent on changing the situation". For the record, that’s essentially what I told the survey makers - - me being willing to suffer would bring no good to the world - - only more suffering. And because the whole thing was 100% hypothetical anyway, what was the point? Wouldn’t our energy be better spent alleviating suffering? That’s what the world really needs - not more people who suffer but more people who LOVE. We don't need trauma and suffering transferred we need them healed.

The myth of being thankful for really sh*tty things
I actually think this notion of needing to nobly suffer through something bad and be grateful for it, in order to qualify for something good; is tied up in old patriarchal Christian notions of humans needing to suffer in recompense for their sinfulness before they can attain ultimate goodness (salvation in heaven) and thus escape ultimate evil (damnation in hell. I don’t buy into that anymore. Not in terms of how I interact with others, and definitely not in terms of how I parent (aka we don't do a rewards/punishment model but focus on love & connection)  Of course life naturally has moments of difficulty, darkness, and shadow. We don't need to and in fact shouldn't try to (spiritually) bypass the natural challenges and hard things that arise. Of course all our actions have natural consequences both good and not. But suffering and trauma at the hands of another, intentional or not, is altogether different. Sometimes the suffering actually does kill us instead of “making us stronger”. By all means if you have genuine soul deep gratitude for a traumatic experience in your life that is a beautiful thing for you. But please know that in my corner of the world, you don’t have to be thankful for the bullying, the abuse, the assault, the neglect, the fires…. that 'made you' the resilient person you are now. You don’t have to be happy about being hurt because the hurt led to healing or some benefit. Suffering is not a prerequisite of learning and we can be grateful for the lesson or benefit without being grateful for the situation that brought it. Just as children don't need to suffer (be punished) to learn life lessons, you don't either. It is simply not necessary to be grateful for suffering, and suffering is not necessary to qualify for some good thing.

Mothering through trauma and pain
Many of us who are in the throes of mothering and parenting today are somewhat shocked to discover that our own negative childhood experiences and traumas -  which we thought were "dealt with" -  get triggered as our children grow and pass milestones that strike a chord of memory in us.  We find ourselves trying to extend grace to our own mothers and parents because we understand that they did the best they could, while also grappling with the impact of their choices on our childhood and now adult selves. We say things like "I became the parent I am today because I wanted something different for my kids" and somehow that morphs into thinking we need to be grateful for the things that went terribly wrong in our childhoods. Yes you can learn to be a good parent after being poorly parented but you don’t have to be grateful for your poor parenting. Because you know how else you can learn to be a good parent? By being parented well. Humans learn better in fact when lessons are positive first hand lived experiences and not artificially contrived or damaging things we have to recover from first, which inevitably leave scars in our lives and on our souls alongside the lesson. In my mind, this masochistic idea of needing to be grateful for the suffering and trauma is a propagated myth which allows people in power (from parents to presidents and every power holder in between) to keep getting away with subjugating those who have less power than they do.

Yes some of us are able to take the shit and use it for growth. But some of us get damaged by it. And some of us get buried by it. So by all means be grateful for who you are today, but don’t for a second believe that you needed to suffer to get here. Suffering isn’t the answer. LOVE is.


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