Moving from suffering to pain to resistance

“Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named and then used in some way in order for the experience…to be transformed into…strength or knowledge or action.  Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.  When I live through pain without recognizing it…I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it.”

Audre Lorde,  Sister Outsider, 171

Too much of the time, we who are sensitive, aware human beings on the planet feel the burden of suffering, the “nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.”

For example, when I read in the current National Geographic Magazine that 25,000 elephants have been killed this year in East Africa by poachers and even government soldiers who want to make money on their tusks, the nightmare of suffering descends upon me.  When I hear that the president of Kenya has declared that “elephants must pay for their room and board with ivory,” I begin to feel physically sick.

The same kind of nausea descends on me when I hear about the melting of the ice in the Arctic or the permafrost in Greenland—even more so when the loudest response to this calamity comes in the form of rapacious, competitive cheering and jostling for position to be the one to extract the greatest amount of riches now revealed beneath the ice.

Or when I read about the ongoing sexual abuse that is occurring rampantly on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a kind of externalization, upon the defenseless bodies of small children, of the unmetabolized suffering of generations of Native peoples trying to survive in unspeakable conditions.

Brooding over all the news of suffering that comes my way each time I take a look at the daily news, I can quickly feel myself overwhelmed with a sense of my own powerlessness.

That is where I need Audre Lorde’s fierce courage to pick me up, dust me off and send me on my way again.

The challenge is to remain open to the suffering, in order to, as she says, recognize, name and use it “to fuel some movement beyond it.”

For many of us right now, the greatest challenge is the awareness that we don’t know what to do. And maybe, even, that there is nothing we can do.

I cannot heroically save the elephants, any more than I can refreeze the polar ice caps or swoop in to rescue the frightened child who is being raped right at this moment.

No.  But what I can do is to try to leave myself open to the suffering—in other words, to not turn away, not deliberately turn off my empathy in order to try to hide from a reality that is hard to confront.

It is my belief that if more of us were to commit to recognizing and naming suffering when we see it, we would find the strength and the right channels to collectively metabolize suffering into the kind of pain that leads to action.

Each of us needs to become a vortex through which the pain can be transmuted first into resistance, and then into an active seeking for alternative paths.

It is not necessary that tens of thousands of elephants die.  It is not necessary that we see the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity to extract more fossil fuels and heat up the atmosphere still more.  It is far from necessary that the children of Spirit Lake are tormented by their elders.

Do not turn away from this suffering.  See it, name it, and turn the pain that these events awaken in you to a righteous force for change.

You don’t need to have all the answers or know what to do with the pain.  Just allow yourself to feel.  Allow empathy to flow.  And then see what happens next.

Leave a comment


  1. Anna

     /  September 23, 2012


    The quote by Audre Lorde is new to me — thanks.

    I happen to find your blog from reading a lively exchange of comments, following an article on global warming, at the Union of Concerned Scientists site. Glad I did!


  2. This is one of the most powerful posts you have written. I am going to share it. It resonates on so many levels for me, not the least of which is with my experiences helping women re-imagine how they can perceive the pain of childbirth as productive and even joyful, rather than as suffering.

  3. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  September 24, 2012

    Yes-I’m glad you get it, Aud–I have been pondering over this distinction between pain and suffering for several months now, since rediscovering that Audre Lorde quote, and finally was ready to attempt to put it into my own words….We live with so much suffering on a daily basis, we NEED to metabolize it in a positive, productive way, or those of us who are sensitive will either turn off (bury our heads under the covers), try to hide with distractions (alcohol, too much TV, busy-ness) or simply go nuts….


  4. Anna

     /  September 24, 2012

    The ‘black out parties’ being held in college towns across the U.S. are drawing thousands of students to come together to get drunk. Are they celebrating being ‘young, foolish, and happy’ or are they reacting to the uncertainties of their life and times by participating in these communal binge drinking events? Either way, I hate to see our young people put their health and safety at risk.

  5. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  September 24, 2012

    I think binge drinking is a physical, externalized manifestation of what Lorde calls “unmetabolized suffering,” suffering that has no other channel or outlet and so becomes self-destructive. We are seeing a lot of that with our young people today. To me the Occupy movement was a welcome change of pace, the frustrations being directed outwards for a change. But it was quickly quelled, and so our kids are back to “black out parties.” What a waste of energy and spirit.

  6. Anna

     /  September 24, 2012

    Indeed, what a waste of energy and spirit.

  7. I love this post, Jennifer. I read it when you first put it up, and then was drawn to it again this morning. I have long been fascinated by how in our society we are conditioned to feel the suffering of a single child–the human interest story impact–while remaining oblivious to the suffering of great numbers of people; the unimaginable numbers themselves seemingly erasing our capacity to be touched. Six million Jews, two and a half million Cambodians, eight hundred thousand Rwandans… such horrors seem to fade into the safety of memory, or the oblivion of memory erased. Meanwhile, a single flag-draped coffin or even one two-ounce infant panda metabolize in us for days. In my poetry, I am always looking for ways to deconstruct this mystery.

  8. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  September 26, 2012

    I think what Lorde was suggesting is that the unmetabolized suffering of those nameless, faceless millions do affect us in nightmarish, half-realized ways…they drag us down and muffle our voices in the fog of despair. But if we can turn that suffering into the searing awareness that Lorde calls PAIN, then those deaths & their suffering will not be in vain, they can be turned to productive use as we move forward into the future….

    Your work, Margaret, has always been trying to do this–taking the suffering of those whose voices are not easily heard in the mainstream, and giving them new power through your own process of literary alchemy. I am beginning to think there is nothing more important those of us who write can be doing.

  9. Thank you, Jennifer. Your words mean a lot. And yes, each in our own field…

  10. What a really great article this is, and thank you so much. I hope you don’t mind, I’ve made a little graphic for it and am running a link to you here as my ‘phrase of the day’, just under the main graphic on my homepage (see Grateful Child). And also sent this to close friends at Greenpeace International, …of those who are the perfect manifestation of the words you speak here. I especially liked the ending, ” Just allow yourself to feel. Allow empathy to flow. And then see what happens next.” That’s just perfect, and exactly what we need to do that will make the necessary changes in our personal and corporate world. Wishing you this Love you feel so deeply, to continue to light up our world, …GC


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