J. Randall Ory
17 - The Essentialness of Suffering - Part Two
If you’re still with me at this point, I have to say, I’m impressed. We’ve made it together through the first part of a conversation about suffering. Yeah! Just the thing you’ve always wanted to do, right! At least you can say you’ve suffered through this so far (ha, ha), so you’ve completed step one. You’re no longer running away from the idea of suffering. That’s important, but it’s not the whole. The point of suffering isn’t suffering. The point of suffering is love. That’s ultimately where suffering leads us. But I don’t think it’s readily obvious why or how suffering leads to love. One thing we can say, when suffering is doing its intended job, it will lead us to greater wholeness, which will eventually bear out to greater love. But how does that work? So far, all we’ve really established is that suffering reveals the source of our suffering, and that we must learn to suffer well in order to get to that place. But what do we do once we get there? How does suffering lead us to wholeness by revealing the cause of our suffering, and what is the cause of our suffering anyway? Understanding the cause has everything to do with how suffering brings us to greater healing, wholeness, and ultimately love, because love requires the greatest suffering of all.
I’m debating, should I just jump straight to the end, and try to back track and explain it, or work my way there slowly. I don’t know. Maybe we should just jump right into the deep end and try not to drown. Okay, here goes. The cause of all our suffering is self-autonomy. I spent three posts talking about the trouble of a self-focused life, and the remedy of surrender. Well, guess what suffering reveals? It reveals a self-focused life in need of surrender. But how does the lack of surrender cause our suffering, and how does surrender cure it? A self-focused life is about controlling everything for our own purpose and pleasure. Our attempt to bend the whole world to us, to re-create its purpose as something existing for us, is the cause of all the suffering in the world, including our own. We even do this to ourselves, when we attempt to recreate our own identity for selfish purposes. That’s because we sometimes think of love in terms of being loved, or getting love, when love, by its very nature is something which can only be given, never taken or earn. Thus, we can also say that all suffering stems from our attempt to be loved by others, instead of our attempt to be love for others. We tend to attach all kinds of strings to love. We tend to love with expectations and requirements. We almost always love in a transactional way. When we do, we turn love into a commodity, and love as a commodity is something which can be bought and sold. It’s no surprise, in a world where everything seems to be for sale (even human beings) that we also come to love in much the same way. We grow up trying to figure out how to get love. This is the greatest dysfunction of our broken world. If, somehow, we could learn how to be love, instead of get love, we would begin to be the remedy of love in a world where everyone is struggling to get what seems in such short supply. It is often in short supply, because we have not truly learned how to love. And, we have not truly learned how to love, because true love requires suffering. But why is that so? I think the answer is obvious, but perhaps obscure because, like suffering, we simply don’t want to face the truth.
How do you define love? Is it a feeling or emotion? Is it a commitment or action? How do you know when you are loved? Love can be hard to define, yet, we certainly know when we feel love, and by contrast, we know when we do not. You know the phrase, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” Love can be like that. When we are in love, it’s easy to take for granted, because it just feels natural. That’s not to say that love isn’t special, or that we shouldn’t make a point to celebrate it. What I’m trying to say is that love is like breathing, it’s just a natural part of how we are meant to live. We were created for love. On the contrary, we were not created to feel unloved. Love is our natural state, so we don’t often pay as much attention to its presence as to its absence. The absence of love, we can say, feels much more intense and easier to identify than its presence, because the absence of love creates our suffering. If that’s true, then how does suffering get us back to love, and how does being in the flow of love produce more suffering. Well, if you must know, there are two kinds of suffering which stem from love. We can suffer from the lack of love, and we can also suffer from loving well. The first kind of suffering is hard to bear, the second can actually be a joy. Suffering the lack of love is almost unbearable. It tears at our very soul, because it puts us in a state of being that we were not intended for. It is, in a way, anti-being. And yet, almost instinctively, we fortify that position out of its experience, because we do not want to experience it again. When we experience the pain of love, we can decide that preventing that pain is paramount. We most often protect ourselves from the pain of love by trying to love from a safer distance, and so we go down a path of trying to learn how to love without being vulnerable to the pain of its withdrawal. You know what that’s like? Its like trying to love with one foot out the door, and one hand on the handle, ready to exit when loving gets too hard or scary. The harder thing to do is decide to stay, and love, even when it hurts. And why does it hurt, because everyone else is in the same position, trying to protect themselves from the very love they’re also trying to get. And what, then, is the remedy? To decide to give up the game of trying to protect ourselves from love and just learn to love no matter how much it hurts, and how much it costs. Once we do that, we turn away from the pain of trying not to feel love’s loss and to the pain of learning how to love no matter what. And that is the remedy. That is why love can hurt no matter which way we go. But the truth is, learning how to suffer for the sake of love is much better than suffering the distance the keeps us from it.
The only way we’re getting out of this mess is learning how to love without fear. I’m not saying that’s easy to do, or even easy to figure out. I’m just saying, that should be our goal. How do we become brave in love? How do we become brave enough to suffer love in the right way, the way that leads us to greater love instead of away from it? I can tell you, every time we actually feel loved, it’s because we’ve opened ourselves up enough to let it in. Love requires trust in order to be received, and trust give loves the space to prove itself. But, in our fear-based state, that can be a delicate and difficult dance to manage. When we approach each other defensively, cautious about the prospect of love, it can take a long time to make even a little progress because we’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’re loving always with one eye towards the door. In other words, we’re always approaching love as an “if-then” relationship. “If he does this, then I’ll do that.” “If she opens up a little, then I’ll open up too.” But it can also become, “if he starts to pull away, then I need to pull away too.” Love in a defensive stance usually means that we progress in love very little, even over a long period of time, and waste so much time trying to navigated a love based on fear instead of love based on mutual surrender. Surrender must be present for love to abound. It’s like the receptivity and tenderness of the soil in our garden of love. If it is too hard, not many seeds will take root and grow. Soft soil is always the best. But, you know what it takes to get from hard soil to soft. It takes a lot of tilling, and tilling the soil of our souls is always painful. There’s a reason it’s called “breaking ground.” It’s in the breaking, and learning to endure the suffering that our hearts get broken back open again in order to better receive love. But who can endure such breaking? It only happens when we decide that the pain of love’s absence is greater than the pain of love’s presence, and when we somehow learn that love itself can give us the strength to endure in love where most would turn away. In truth, it only takes one person who knows how to love in order to teach us that it’s better to suffer loves’ presence than its absence. But how do we learn this truth in a world where so few seem to have mastered it? When all we see is love in a defensive stance, how can we learn to love from a surrendered stance? This is where personal transformation through modern contemplation comes into play.
In order for us to learn how to suffer for the sake of love, we must learn how to uncover the dysfunction of love in every part of our being. When love has led us to withdraw and retreat, we must discover a greater love that can lead us back out again. The only love that can do that well is the love of God. God is love. That is to say that the Divine flow of energy in the universe is that of love. Love is a giving force, it is always flowing to all things, into all things, and out of all things. Love is a bonding energy, never a separating or isolating energy. Whenever we see the action of love in the world, we know we have seen the presence of God. Wherever we see the absence of love in the world, we know we are witnessing the blocking of that flow. Therefore, the ultimate test of God in anything is seen in the present action of love. This is exactly what Jesus and His followers said of God. One of his first followers, John, actually said that if we claim to know God, and do not know how to love, then we are liars and the truth of God is not in us, because God is love, and everyone who knows God knows love and knows how to love. So, we see that claiming to know God, and yet not knowing how to love, is an untenable truth. Likewise, we can also see that anyone who knows how to love, even if they do not claim to know God, is actually revealing the presence of God. The proof is not in confession but action, in the presence or absence of love in our lives, which can also be clearly seen in our willingness to suffer for the sake of being and breathing this kind of love in the world. What I’m saying is that we cannot be the presence of love in the world unless we are connected to the flow of that energy, which is God. That’s why modern contemplation is necessary, because it teaches us how to become reconnected to that source through a sustained effort, which helps illuminate through that connection the places in each part of our being that are effectively blocking that flow. The process of God revealing our woundedness, which has led us to retreat into ourselves for fear of loves pain, is in itself a painful process. Each part of us has its own unique way of translating that dysfunctional fear, and so each part of us requires a different, separate kind of process in order to retrace our steps back out into the open spaces of God’s love. What the heart does with fear will be different than what the mind or the body does with that. In other words, our reaction to fear translates differently in our three Centers of Being and Knowing. The way the mind isolates and insulates itself from love, out of fear, will be different than that of the heart, body, soul, and spirit. It is only as we come into contact with the only source of love completely unhindered by fear that we are able to learn, ourselves, how to surrender to love in the same way. God’s action of love is the only thing strong enough to tempt us out of our fear-fortress with the taste of what our hearts have always desired. God invites us into a space where the freedom of love is possible by a love that is completely free from the transactional, merit-based kind of love we create in order to feel safe in an unsafe and dysfunctional kind of love. To paint God as a part of this merit-based love system will never work to draw us out. We must understand how we often pass on our dysfunctional sense of love to our idea of God, translating how we love to how we think God loves. In other words, a God who is waiting for us to make the first move in love is not a God of perfect love, and not a God we can love. If God is truly love, and truly able to draw us out with perfect love, then God’s love must be what ours is not, a completely unmerited, perfect energy the permeates all things in a never ending, unhindered flow. The God of so many religions cannot be good if we’re left as the initiators in the story, trying to convince God that we’re good enough to receive love. It is only a God who suffers our inability to love which can be good, and can truly overcome the fear-based love we’ve come to know. A God who affirms our fear-based love will never draw us out and set us free.
We will only suffer for the sake of love, instead of the loss of love, when we know that there is a love worth suffering for. That kind is a love which steps out and does the suffering first. That is why we must reorient our picture of God to that of one who is strong enough to be vulnerable enough to love us first, which is exactly the picture Jesus gave us. A suffering God is so different than much of what we’ve been taught. A God who suffers for us is the only kind of God who could love us enough to truly rescue us from the hiding place our broken love has driven us. A God who demands that we suffer to love him/her, only teaches us to do the same, to expect others to suffer while we remain protected by our safe distance. If God is love, and the absence of love is the cause of our suffering, then it’s our separation from God as our source of love which is the true cause of our suffering. That means that the reversal of our suffering is coming back into contact with God. But that also means suffering the difficult task of learning how to become vulnerable again, enough to surrender to the love of God, which is the only proper response to a love big enough to hold us in our vulnerability. In all this, I think there’s still a lot to unpack, including the practical ways this applies to our journey of transformation from selfish to selfless, which also involves coming alive in the fullness of who we were meant to be. I'll wrap all this up in the next and final post.