Suffering – pain, misfortune, and misery – has always been a basic, essential, and unavoidable fact of human life. People experience three kinds of suffering: internal, intentional, and natural.
The Pain of Internal Suffering
Some of the stress and suffering we go through comes from inside ourselves and, in many cases, is self-inflicted. We worry about having enough money in our lives, we fret over the things we’ve done or what we’ve failed to do, we even agonize over stuff beyond our control, including things that haven’t happened and might never happen. Additionally, some internal suffering is worsened by our own self-damaging emotions such as jealousy, pride, envy, hatred, and vengeance.
If we have any self-awareness or sense of personal moral responsibility, we can find ourselves troubled by the individual we are versus the kind of person we would like to be.
The good news is, if we can recognize and control our own negative impulses or personal performance failures, they are less likely to cripple us.
The Intentional Suffering We All Experience
Some of the suffering we experience in life is intentional, designed to improve our character and performance. Through the exercise of our free will, the Creator intentionally allows humans suffer as a means of purifying them, improving the quality of their characters, and educating them in the ways of becoming spiritual beings.
This is a tough concept for almost anyone to accept. People who believe in and honor the existence and influence of an all-powerful deity want to believe in a wholly benevolent and kindly universal force at work. So, the knowledge that this same cosmic entity could intentionally allow us to experience suffering as a means of purification and perfection is not a welcome notion. But that kind of God-directed suffering exists, and the Baha’i teachings don’t shy away from this difficult reality.
While addressing an audience at a talk he gave in Paris, France in October of 1912, Abdu’l-Baha offered this blunt assessment: “Men who suffer not, attain no perfection.”
“Tests are benefits from God, for which we should thank Him,” Abdu’l-Bahá told his French audience on that October evening in Paris. “Grief and sorrow do not come to us by chance, they are sent to us by the Divine Mercy for our own perfecting.”
Spiritual suffering has purpose and value. Distress forces us to look for new ways to solve problems and to respond to our troubles with perseverance and flexibility in order to cope with life’s tougher challenges.
Suffering and Natural Disasters
The final cause of suffering may be the hardest to contend with. This misery, caused by catastrophic events over which we have no control, happens randomly in the world, leaving its victims helpless and despondent.
Terrible things occur all the time on this planet. Every day, human lives are snuffed out by natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, floods, landslides, and hurricanes.
No one is at fault here; no one did anything wrong, and no one is to blame. Bad things happen because we live in a world ruled by natural forces that we cannot influence, predict, or restrain.
Baha’u’llah’s writings make numerous references to “the changes and chances of the world,” acknowledging that – however much this fact unsettles and nettles us – life on this planet is uncertain. Arbitrary suffering just happens, and we have to accept it as part of our existence.
Building Personal Resilience
However, while there is no way to anticipate any unsuspected and catastrophic event, we do have the ability to find ways to cope with and recover from whatever traumatic incidents happen to us – and the key to that involves building personal resilience. Resiliency is the ability to suffer, survive, and surmount a traumatic or disruptive event.
The Baha’i Faith offers an approach to achieving resilience, although it is not an easy one and requires concentrated effort to master. The process of coping with catastrophic events involves learning and practicing four related and overlapping steps: prayer, reading, meditation, and confirmation.
Everything starts with prayer, which is perhaps the most misunderstood and mismanaged form of spiritual communication in human life.
Those who are indifferent to or contemptuous of organized religion and reject the belief that God even exists regard praying as a foolish delusion offered up to a fictional entity.
But even many of those who consider themselves genuinely religious often say their supplications for the wrong motivations. It is common for those who pray to do so because they believe that God will magically act in their behalf to make them richer, more successful, or provide them triumph over their enemies. This attitude entirely misses the point of prayer.
Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher got closer to the mark when he noted: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
Anyone who is sincere about praying understands and accepts that, as individuals, humans are flawed, limited, and often spiritually adrift. Prayer is an effort to bring ourselves into alignment with how God wants us to behave and to empower us to live in an honorable and selfless manner.
Achieving this level of understanding is a long and evolutionary process. The effects of prayer are seldom immediate or obvious, but tend to be gradual and developmental.
The next step, and one that parallels and coincides with praying, involves studying scripture. “Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that you may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths,” Baha’u’llah advised all Baha’is in his Most Holy Book.
That turns out to be quite a task. To describe Baha’u’llah as “prolific” is something of an understatement. He wrote about 1,500 separate works – letters, poems, essays, prayers, meditations, behavioral guidelines, appeals, narratives, epigrams, etc.
While not everything Baha’u’llah wrote is of equal weight and importance, the major works, including the Most Holy Book, the Book of Certitude, Prayers and Meditations, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, and the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf – contain enough potent spiritual wisdom to keep a reader busy for a lifetime of study.
No matter which of Baha’u’llah’s writings a person chooses as a way to improve and strengthen character, reading inevitably leads to thinking about what the words and concepts mean. That brings us to the third step: meditation.
Meditation, a mental and spiritual exercise in which a person focuses his attention on a particular topic or idea and thinks about what it means and how it works, can be a useful way of understanding what a person has read and experienced.
The virtue of this kind of contemplation? It deepens and broadens the reader’s comprehension of any topic. The more you understand, the wiser you become.
All the previous steps combine to lead to the final goal: spiritual confirmation. Confirmation is a process that starts with understanding the deeper meanings of religious writings, and ends with using that influence to improve and enrich our lives and behavior as humans.
The value of confirmation is that it helps keep the turmoil of the world in perspective and acts as a buffer against whatever natural or manmade forces that ravage the physical world.
So, in the long run, confirmation gives us the spiritual strength which empowers us, not just to survive every kind of adversity, but to prevail over even the harshest circumstances life throws at us.
Resiliency, then, means rising above those circumstances, realizing their temporary nature, and focusing on what is permanent and lasting in our lives – the love of God.