One of the worst parts of suffering is waiting.
If you are sick or injured, you wait for your body to heal.
If you have burning questions for a doctor, you wait for an appointment.
If you feel the pain of unemployment and apply to multiple jobs, you wait for recruiters to reply.
If you are a victim of injustice seeking reparation, you wait for the proper authorities to enforce the law in a just manner.
If you experience profound grief, you lament and seek counsel and support, yet ultimately you must wait for the mending power of time to take its course.
By definition, waiting in suffering deprives you of a great deal of agency. You are suffering because something bad has happened which you cannot reverse. You may have caused the suffering, or perhaps it came upon you randomly and without warning. Either way suffering reveals how little control you really had all along.
That doesn’t mean you are helpless, however. You can always make certain basic decisions. Victor Frankl famously said that in the Nazi death camps, even though the prisoners were stripped to their bones of everything they had, they never lost that “last of human freedoms”: the ability “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” It is important to note what he added next: “And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom […].”
Much of what I have read about and experienced in suffering boils down to this. Weep and grieve, then focus on what is in your power to control. Concentrate on doing what you know you must do, one day at a time. Stay healthy. Get exercise. Feed yourself healthy food. Get out into nature. Pay the bills. Seek help from people who love you. Brush your teeth. Go to bed on time. Keep a journal. Repeat.
All of which is true assuming you have the means to do so and, more importantly, a reason and meaning to drive you—an end to which all your choices and actions are ultimately directed. The problem is that there are many of these, and they are not all created equal.
Let us say you make your meaning in life your children, and so you order your life around ensuring their success, or protecting them from making the same mistakes you made. It is almost certain in this case that you will crush them with your expectations, or you will be crushed when they let you down. If you make your meaning in life fitness and health, you will be restless in comparing yourself to those who are fitter than you, and judgmental of those who aren’t. You’ll be frustrated when illness or injury hamper your progress, or devastated if some terrible accident maims you. And that’s to say nothing of the disappointment that age will bring to your frail body. Age, as one character shouts in an episode of The Crown, is cruel.
No, the most durable meaning in life is that which death, decay, and further suffering cannot take away. And I know of no such meaning outside of a faith-based framework that asserts the existence of supernatural, transcendent realities.
I know that this idea rankles many Americans. We believe in natural phenomena that can be measured and verified. We trust in things we can see and touch. But natural things die, and our hearts are too deep to be filled by the thin gruel of things that die. As Tolstoy put it, it is faith that “gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death.”
Whatever the case, you will face suffering. And whatever course you choose when suffering occurs, you will experience the agony of waiting.
Incidentally, the season of Advent, which in the Christian tradition occurs in the weeks leading up to Christmas, is the perfect time of year for waiting. Based on the Latin word for “coming” or “arrival,” Advent is about waiting for the promised Messiah who will bring hope to the afflicted; for evildoers to be brought to justice; for the final defeat of evil and the restoration of all things broken. You may not be Christian, but you can still appreciate this idea. There is a fantastic overview in the New York Times. I also recommend this daily Advent devotional by Biola State University. What is striking to see is that while waiting does indeed come with a certain loss of freedom, there is, paradoxically, an incredible amount of active will involved. Waiting requires strength and courage. It means choosing hope when everything seems hopeless, and then acting upon that hope against all odds.
Psalm 27:14 says it well: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”