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What is human suffering?

What is human suffering?
I’ve never suffered. Not really. Not the kind of suffering that so many are called to endure. Not the kind of suffering that continues for years and years. My temporary physical disability has given me a chance to reflect on the meaning of the word “suffering.”
When many of you were in high school or college, you participated in an experiment. It was designed to help you understand what other human beings experience every day. It was designed to make you more sensitive to the needs of others. Early in the morning, a classmate met you in a designated place and carefully placed a blindfold around your eyes. You were required to spend the day with your partner as they led you through a seeing world … as a blind person. But the truth was obvious to everyone. You weren’t blind. You knew that evening would come and you’d remove the blindfold and return to your normal routine. Did the experience teach you sensitivity? Maybe. But it certainly didn’t teach you what it was like to be blind. You knew you could “escape” the condition at a moment’s notice. It was nothing more than a temporary inconvenience.
Sometimes human beings mistakenly call “temporary inconveniences” suffering. I’ve learned to take a more narrow and respectful view of the word “suffering.” What about these scenarios? Running out of gas on the way to a job interview. An irritating neighbor who doesn’t mow his yard. A lack of money to buy a new car. A college student who has to work two jobs while going to school full-time. A bad haircut. A spouse who never cleans the bathroom. Stained carpet you can’t afford to replace. An occasional sinus headache. Being passed over for a job promotion. Being unrecognized for volunteer service. Being ridiculed by someone who doesn’t really know you. A misplaced piece of expensive jewelry. Inconveniences … all.
No. Suffering has a distinct nature to it. And many of you are living through it. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year. The death of a child. Chronic physical pain. Mental anguish or illness. Broken promises from the one who promised to love you. Permanent physical disabilities. Family members plagued by chemical abuse.
I can’t say, “I understand.” I don’t. And I can’t put on a blindfold in order to experience your pain. Real life isn’t that simple.
Many of you have heard of Joni Erickson Tada, author/speaker/artist. She is one of the most inspiring speakers I’ve ever heard. Pull up her Web site and you’ll find these words, “Celebrating 40 years in a wheelchair.” A diving accident as a teenager left her paralyzed. She now spends her life encouraging others who are in wheelchairs. She can speak to their pain and discouragement because she has suffered. She can hardly move the parts of her body … except her mouth. And she uses that to honor God and rejoice in the promise of heaven. And the art she produces? Amazing.
Corrie Ten Boom suffered through concentration camps. Unspeakable horrors. Read the inspiring book, “The Hiding Place.” She tells the truth about suffering. She recounts the pain and discouragement of watching her sister die. But she also tells of the comfort in the midst of it all. Her famous quote? “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”
I remember lying in a hospital bed unable to move. Now I can go most anywhere I want. I still need the wheelchair or walker to get there. But it’s a far cry from suffering. I’m blessed with the gift of movement. My temporary physical limitations? A mild inconvenience.
Editor’s note: Lisa Smartt’s column appears each Wednesday in the Friends and Neighbors section of The Messenger. Mrs. Smartt is the wife of Philip Smartt, the University of Tennessee at Martin parks and recreation and forestry professor, and is mother to two boys, Stephen and Jonathan. She is a freelance writer and speaker. She can be reached by e-mail at

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