“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.