Sorrow becomes a way to honour the experience of what happened without clinging to suffering

This blog is adapted from an article from the International Spiritual Directors journal Presence written by Margaret F. Arms. It offers helpful insight into suffering and sorrow and the difference between the two. Some of the words below are taken directly from the article, some changed and some my own.

Suffering comes to us all in many different forms. We often seek to clarify and make sense of our experiences of suffering by deriving meaning and purpose for it in the hope that doing so will redeem or mitigate the experience of it. The consequences of it impact on our bodies, psyche and spirit and can live on in us with the same raw, immediacy of the original event. 

It an be a frightening place that calls into question who we are as human beings and, perhaps more disarming, the character of God. Poet John O’Donahue says…

When you stand in the place of pain, you are no one… you are utterly unhoused. Now you know where Nowhere is.

It can be a stark, frozen place from which we fear there will be no escape. Suffering can make us feel lost, utterly alone and as if we’re the only one to have walked this way.

Sorrow is something different, a deeper, broader place than suffering. Sorrow holds a depth that includes sadness, suffering, grief and regret. It’s deeper than an awareness of the universality of suffering; we know intellectually that suffering is universal, yet we still encounter it as an individual experience. Sorrow, on the other hand, exists in the realm of universal human consciousness and experience. It moves us beyond individual experience of suffering to it being common place. 

It can be tempting to linger with individual suffering, to move away from it may seem dishonouring to the original experience and yet it can be enormously healing to make that step. Remaining in the place of suffering can keep us trapped in the “Nowhere” place, frozen with no obvious way to thaw. Yet, we cannot just leave the suffering and walk away as if the triggering event with its resultant suffering never happened. 

Sorrow becomes a way to honour the experience of what happened without clinging to suffering. Moving towards and deeply into sorrow is the way through suffering. 

Serene Jones says…

Suffering requires full bodied grieving for what you’ve lost… it requires turning private agony into public, shared loss… there is at least the possibility of moving on.

Sorrow is like a river that contains all sadness and grief as a result of suffering but instead of stagnating and freezing, it moves. We join with the collected suffering of the universe and are open to experience transformation. 

How to move from suffering to sorrow

First, we must do the hard work of honouring the suffering and the event behind it. We must grieve, we’re invited to look deeply at the impact of the triggering events of suffering on our lives. This might include journaling, writing poetry, painting, talking with trusted friends and family or engaging in therapy.

Second we’re invited to begin to notice and engage intentionally to the present world. Being present to nature, food, a soft blanket, a piece of music. This pulls our attention outward to include a world beyond suffering and breaks through the instinct to withdraw and disengage. 

Third, we begin to experience ourselves as more than our story of individual suffering. As we do this we step into the river of sorrow and remember who we really are. Here we begin to thaw. Here we can laugh and enjoy life even in the midst of sorrow. 

Those who sorrow can begin to recognise and re-experience God entering in. Holding mourning and wonder, suffering and sorrow, we honour the experience of suffering without becoming overwhelmed. It is a place of broadening, openness and healing. 

The river of sorrow moves us toward the oceans of life-giving places of wholeness, of compassion, of wisdom and of wonder. It joins with other rivers of the deep mysteries of life; joy, love, attentiveness, awareness and vibrant relationships with each other and the Divine. It moves us to the ocean where we know we are more than our stories of suffering. It moves us to extend ourselves outwards to join with all who suffer. It frees us, giving us permission to laugh as well as cry, to experience joy as well as sadness and offer the fullness of ourselves to the world.

Margaret Arms, PhD, is a spiritual director in Colorado. She holds a joint PhD from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology in religious and theological studies. She has taught in the Benedictine Spiritual Formation Programme at Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs. 

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