‘I saw three ships go sailing by,

Over the sea, the lifting sea,

And the wind rose in the morning sky,

And one was rigged for a long journey…

…But the third went wide and far

Into an unforgiving sea

Under a fire-spilling star,

And it was rigged for a long journey.’

from Philip Larkin’s The North Ship

The word ‘suffering’ in the title of this blog is intentional and deliberate. However, I am aware that my interpretation of what suffering means may well be at odds with that of others. For me, I see my voyage through life as one demarcated by many diverse and rich experiences. But, as Larkin reflects, life itself is ‘an unforgiving sea’, and living it involves many obstacles and challenges that interrupt and disrupt the passage, a passage where suffering sits equally alongside all other emotional experiences.

Religion, particularly Catholicism, has historically appropriated, and plagiarised, the word. And so, ‘to suffer’ has come to additionally assert some kind of penitential meaning, a necessary experience to be endured for atonement of sins committed.

I am reclaiming the word in a purist and secular sense. I argue that suffering belongs with all the other subjective experiences that define our humanness, all of which contribute to the final sum of what it is to experience life and the living of it, and ultimately what it is to be one’s self.

A friend drew my attention today to a current piece in The New England Journal of Medicine, ‘The Word That Shall Not Be Spoken, by Thomas H. Lee (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1309660).

The word referred to in the title is indeed ‘suffering’. The author considers how physicians tend to avoid the word, judged as being ‘a tad sensational, a bit too emotional.’ He discovers that academic journals and textbooks similarly avoid it. When Lee asked colleagues why they avoided using the word ‘suffering’, one of the comments was that it was not ‘actionable’ for clinicians, which in turn reminded them of their powerlessness.

‘And it makes us feel guilty. Suffering demands empathy and response at a level beyond that required by “anxiety,” “confusion,” or even “pain.”

Thus, the word ‘suffering’ tends to be avoided by the medical fraternity, even though it may most accurately reflect what the patients they are caring for are actually experiencing.

Lee proceeds to discuss the alleviation of suffering, and here our views diverge. Undoubtedly, we cannot be complacent about the suffering of others. However, I believe that the critical first step as compassionate human beings, is to allow for the expression of suffering as an experience that is an inevitable accompaniment of life and living, and to acutely bear witness to what that lived experience is, for others, and for ourselves.

Only then, can we start to consider how it might be alleviated.

CQ

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