Suffering: The Irritant that Produces the Pearl


The other day I wrote a post for Psych Central about suffering. I was a tad nervous posting it, because somehow I think I should have a more optimistic philosophy about life, and that I should be a more positive person, in general. However, given the feedback on the piece, I am glad I published it. Because maybe it will make you feel less alone if your world view is similar to mine. You can find it at Psych Central, but I have excerpted the first few paragraphs here.

Writing a Commencement speech is like writing your eulogy: You have to nail down in 10 minutes or less a succinct message that represents your entire life. It’s best to capture all the sweat and tears, the laughter and sorrow, life’s drama in a few tight, coherent paragraphs.

Having been asked to give one in May to my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, I have been studying Commencement addresses of the pros: J.K. Rowling, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs. And here’s what all of them had in common: suffering.

Yep. The primary theme in each of these essays is that suffering is the rubble on which success is built. I’m sure that you can bypass suffering altogether, but then you’d have a rather boring Commencement speech. I’ve read some of those too.

It’s the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: “Life is suffering.”

I’m very comfortable with that.

Because I agree with that statement wholeheartedly.

However, not everyone does. In writing my speech I came across some very different philosophies. One friend told me that my early draft was depressing. “This is not going to inspire college kids,” she said. “It’s pretty much saying that life is one hard test after another, but you get lucky every so often with a moment of happiness.”

“Yep,” I said. “That’s accurate, don’t you think?”

“No. I don’t,” she responded. “I would say that life is mostly good with an occasional moment of hardship.”

“Wow. Really? What kind of drugs are you taking?”

So I revised my essay it to be a perkier piece, spreading sunshine over the 10 minutes. I devoted paragraphs to the many joys of life: beautiful sunsets, babies born, weddings, yada yada through a little scrapbook of happy events. Life is one fun adventure and you are lucky because you are just beginning yours!

But somewhere in the process I lost my voice, my story, and the wisdom I earned in the psych ward. Not on peaceful walks with my dogs. Not while kayaking the beautiful fingers of the Chesapeake. All the good stuff came from intensely painful moments back when I was begging God for a malignant tumor. Those times became the irritating grains within the oyster shell that emerged as pearls.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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