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True Suffering Isn't Photogenic

Thursday, May 01, 2014 11:01 AM Comments (29)

 "I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it's true!" This is the latest catch phrase at our house (where I'm the only person who hasn't yet seen The Lego Movie, which the quote is from). It's a great point: just because something is a cliché doesn't mean it's false. Lately, I'm rediscovering the truth of a perennial cat-posterish idea: change hurts.

We all know this is true, yes? We're all familiar with a whole panoply of phrases that express this idea: "No pain, no gain"; "You have to break some eggs to make an omelet"; "No guts, no glory"; "No cross, no crown"; and so on.

But it's truer, and uglier, than most "cat posters" want to admit. The problem with living with a world in love with cat poster ideas is that it's easy to click "like" or "up" or "favorite," but somewhat harder to be the actual cat. When we're the cat -- when we're the one actually living through the suffering or pain -- we often end up feeling dismayed, discouraged, even betrayed when we find ourselves genuinely suffering, and it genuinely hurts. We think we are prepared for the idea that change and progress only come through struggle and sweat, but maybe subconsciously we expect that struggle to look -- well, photogenic.

There are many styles of romanticized pain: the gritty warrior with corded neck muscles squinting toward the coming battle; the elegantly wilting emo chick collapsing in a puddle of rosewater and mascara; the sepia-tinted mother with her chin held high against the world as her shabby chic children cling to her capable thighs; the robed faithful servant on his knees in anguish, just as muscular and splendid as the angel who comes to comfort him; the sleek long-distance runner powering through the rain, baring his perfect white teeth and lovin' that burn.

These are all half truths about suffering and growth. Here's the actual truth:  growth and change usually cause suffering, and suffering is ugly. Really ugly, not poster ugly.

If someone you love actually betrays you, your tears aren't going to wend their way down your cheek like so many liquid crystals; you're going to cry until your skin is blotchy, your nose runs, your teeth ache, and your sinuses fill up with snot. Being a soldier is, from what I hear, less often about guts and glory, and more about boredom, rashes, diarrhea, and fear. The true action of change is less like sprouting glorious wings and more like dissolving into horrible, stinky soup. Just ask any former caterpillar. 

So, what's the solution? Well, first of all, if what I've said above isn't true for you, then carry on! If you truly gain inspiration and strength and encouragement from a poster or a meme, then that is great. If it works, it works. Sometimes an attractive image is what helps us to embrace necessary change instead of shrinking away from it.  Sometimes picturing ourselves as warriors instead of victims really does give us that extra oomph we need to push forward instead of giving up. 

But if you find yourself suffering real pain, pain that just plain hurts instead of "hurts so good," then don't add to that pain because you feel like you're somehow doing it wrong. You're not a poster, you're a person; and true suffering isn't photogenic. So if you find yourself suffering and you feel stupid, or ugly, or confused, or exhausted, then realize that this is what true suffering looks like. Change hurts, and it's not supposed to look nice. That's what makes it painful! Don't make yourself even more miserable than you have to be by expecting to be gorgeous in your misery. That's a subtle and insidious temptation to despair.

Yes, some suffering is unavoidable. Yes, it's usually necessary for growth and change. Yes, we are often at our best when we choose to be strong in the face of suffering. Yes, it's often worthwhile, and there is often glory and joy onthe other side.

But no, it's not going to look good when you're in the thick of it.

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About Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher
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Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and nine children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.