The Use and Misuse of Painful Experiences

What is the meaning of suffering? It’s a big question, of course, but I want to focus on one aspect of a possible answer here, for a moment. I want to focus on the way that pain affects a person’s moral development.

Everyone has been hurt and ill-treated at some time. The only question is who that hurt made them into. The question is, in other words, whether the hurt corrupted them, or helped make them grow.

We’ve all met people who have deep character flaws that can be attributed, at least in part, to the awful experiences they passed through earlier in their lives. We’ve also seen the opposite.

Think of that profoundly compassionate person you know, who has felt the pain you are feeling, and worse, and who wants to help you. Think of that incredibly strong person you know who was determined never to feel weak again after what happened.

Pain is sometimes bad and sometimes good. It’s too simple when someone wants to try and make pain out to be just one or the other.

Pain and hardship can affect us in ways that are beyond our conscious control, often seeding future disordered behaviour and thinking without our consent.

Pain can also, however, be used by the one suffering it. We can guide our experience of pain to some extent, or at least our interpretation of the experience, in order to help it shape us into the people we want to become. It is very difficult to do so, but given the way a painful experience can give shape and direction to our entire lives and selves, it is vitally important that we attempt it.

We will pass through painful times. Those times will affect who we’re becoming, in big ways. The only question is whether or not we’ll try to influence the direction in which we’re being shaped.

We always have a choice in those moments, so long as we’re able to recognize that we have a choice.

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