Our Suffering Defines us. It can make us stronger…
In the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian, the military ruler Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones, travels with his armies across the land conquering, pillaging and enslaving the people and towns throughout the land. The young Conan is captured. His family is murdered by Thulsa’s soldiers. Conan himself is turned into a slave. He is chained to a heavy grain mill called the ‘Wheel of Pain and must spend the next two decades of his life pushing this heavy weight in a continuous circle. Eventually he gets his freedom when he is sold as a slave. You could say he suffered quite a bit. However, this suffering also made him stronger.
The Wheel of Pain
The years of slavery spent pushing this ‘Wheel of Pain’ turns the young boy into an incredibly strong and muscular young man. Arnold Schwarzenegger played the older Conan and was probably at his peak of muscular strength when he played the role. His character Conan becomes a master thief and further develops his fighting skills as a warrior. His goal becomes to get revenge on the man responsible for his parents death, Thulsa Doom. To do so, he must become stronger. He must become Conan the Barbarian. Eventually he gets his chance later in the movie to meet his nemesis and to kill him. When they meet, Conan is angry and tells him:
“You killed my mother! You killed my father! You killed my people! You took my father’s sword.”
“Shall I tell you? It’s the least I can do. Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger… That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this!”
What does it mean? Well, Thulsa tells Conan that he made him who he is. He “gave” it to him. The suffering that Thulsa caused the young Conan made him into the strong man that he became. And in a way, he was right. Without Thulsa’s actions, there would have been no Conan the Barbarian.
“I gave you this”
Our suffering in life defines us. The hardships we go through, that we endure and survive make us. These hardships that at times, almost kill us, in the end all define us. They all make us who we are today. If our hardships have been especially bad, they will have damaged us and some of that damage we must carry with us. We must learn to deal with it.
Often our suffering comes when we are young. When we are more vulnerable to other people around us, we have less control and less choice over who we are with. Bullying is an example. But it can come at any age. People may partner up with a sociopath. They may get into abusive relationships. Our sufferings may come from tragedies or family splits. Whatever the cause, the effects can be detrimental to our psyches. They can harm us, lead to negative emotions and poor self-esteem.
Suffering gives us drive and creativity
However, conversely suffering also builds our character by making us more stronger-willed or more determined to never be in a vulnerable position again. Suffering may lead us like Conan to want to take ‘revenge’ by becoming successful in life, work or business or it can lead to the development of certain creative skills. The famous author Charles Dickens grew up in the poor house, his father was sent to debtors prison in Victorian England. It may be that this early experience of suffering led him to developing the imaginative skills and life-experiences that made him become a great author. It could be that the colourful characters he created were drawn from those early childhood experiences.
Whatever doesn’t kill us…
So it is ironic, that suffering experiences can part destroy us. But they can also create us. They can make us into the people we are today. If there are readers who have suffered. There may be parts of your mindset and personality that you don’t like and which you blame on your suffering experiences. However, if you look within, there will be parts of you character and mindset that are actually very positive and are liked by other people – and those parts may also have been caused by those suffering experiences. So like Thulsa Doom tells Conan – “Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this!” Thulsa represents the suffering inflicted on Conan. It hurt him but it also made him.
So then it begs the question. Is suffering part of our life script? Is it an essential part of our life journey? A lesson for the soul? Are we meant to suffer in order to fulfil our destiny. There are some of us in life who don’t suffer. They have relatively stable lives and do well. Yet others have to undergo some awful suffering. Perhaps the life script is different for everyone. Some people undergo the suffering experience for a deeper reason in life. Other’s don’t need it. This does not mean that one person’s life is better because they have suffered or vice-versa.
There is word often used in Japanese – “Gamen” It simply means “endure” as in ‘to endure’ a difficult time. The concept of enduring difficulties is not a common part of modern Western language. At least I don’t think so. Perhaps the Japanese use it more because their people have had to endure a significant amount of suffering. Whether it is the rebuilding of a devastated economy and infrastructure following the last war. Or perhaps because of the constant risk of natural disasters – earthquakes and tsunami, which may have made them more fatalistic and ready to accept difficulties. These experiences have influenced their collective memory. The whole concept of Gamen is to endure something uncomfortable if there is no way to avoid it. Sometimes suffering is unavoidable and sometimes life just sucks.
Suffering creates our talents
There is the idea of the ‘wounded healer’. A person can become a good healer despite having problems himself that he is unable to heal. His wounds do not stop him. Perhaps it helps him.
In my case, I grew up in a somewhat toxic household, which may have contributed to some of the health problems that I suffered from as a young adult. I can see that suffering pushed me onto the path of complementary health care and acupuncture, so therefore, if I had not experienced some suffering in my life, I would not have started looking for natural answers to my ailments and would never have been interested in health.
After that, I became a therapist and I believe that having suffered myself, it helps make me empathetic to others who are suffering as I feel I understand a little of the pain they are going through. This can make a person a better healer, though it is not always necessary and I think that in the West, a lot of natural health care practitioners became interested in their fields because it helped them overcome a health problem at one point, which led them to become interested enough to study it. So in this way, suffering helped them and me define our identities. Suffering makes us stronger.
Suffering can make you a kinder person
Even if you don’t work in healthcare, there will be other ways that early suffering can affect how you live. It may make you more sympathetic or maybe have a stronger sense of justice or fairness that can lead you to treat people with greater respect and empathy in whatever line of work you do. You may become a kinder person. Sure, it could also turn you into a barbarian, but my point is that both good and bad traits can evolve from suffering experiences. It may be a matter of reframing your experiences by looking for the ways that it made you stronger. I think my suffering made me a better acupuncturist. In fact, without my suffering, I really doubt I would have become one. Without my suffering experiences, I don’t know what path I would have followed in my life.
DIY Suffering Kit: Suffering makes us Stronger
And if you feel that maybe you haven’t suffered enough in life and you are one of the lucky few. Well then, perhaps, it may be worth constructing a ‘Wheel of Pain’ in your backyard. Perhaps Ikea could start selling it? Then spend the next 20 years pushing it. If it worked for Conan…