• Featured News

    Something to Think About: Suffering and compassion

a homeless man holding out his hands for help
Dr. Amit Sood says, "Let suffering, personal or witnessed, evoke compassion, until you reach a point where your compassion is spontaneous without the need for suffering."

Dear friend,

Suffering, personal or witnessed, often leaves a residue. That residue could be a painful scar that invades many future conscious moments. This scar takes away hope, crushes trust, and makes you fearful and paranoid. An event of suffering thus can seed a lifetime of unhappiness. Different names capture this ongoing suffering—post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic stress, battle fatigue, burnout, and more.

The residue could also lead to a changed worldview. One engages with life in all its richness and becomes gentler and more patient. Relationships improve, priorities change, and newer possibilities emerge. This new perspective recognizes each moment without suffering as precious and transient. One becomes stronger and more resilient to future suffering. Such resilience doesn’t lead one back to just the baseline; it raises the baseline—one grows as a result of the tumble. No wonder some experts call this phenomenon post-traumatic growth.

It is important to recognize that trauma itself doesn’t lead to growth. Trauma wakes up the individual to recruit greater inner resources and develop a more mature viewpoint to start on the growth trajectory. Further, growth itself doesn’t guarantee an end to pain; growth and pain often coexist, although the pain amid growth feels more tolerable.

How can you “choose” the growth trajectory? The more intentional you are about how you look at your adversity, particularly in its early, delicate phase, the greater the likelihood of growth. Learning to find the right within the wrong, accepting that some adversities are part of life, and trying to find meaning in adversity are useful first steps. Having caring people around you who are willing to listen and provide a wise counsel greatly helps.

Adversity-stimulated growth preserves hope. Such growth doesn’t let adversity diminish the light of compassion within you. Adversity kindles stronger compassion.

Initially, such compassion extends only to those one knows are suffering. Gradually one breaks this barrier and recognizes that the list of suffering people includes everyone, even those who may have knowingly or unknowingly caused suffering.

That land is blessed where compassion thrives without the personal experience of suffering. Most places on earth, however, need suffering to evoke compassion.

Suffering that doesn’t evoke compassion may not fulfill its potential purpose. We should create a world where compassion sprouts without the need for suffering. Until we reach it, let suffering create, not a scar, but a mind that is willing to give and receive kindness.

May you never suffer; may your suffering make you stronger and kinder.

Take care.

Read Dr. Sood's blog posts and follow @AmitSoodMD on Twitter.

Dr. Sood is director of research in the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in Minnesota. He also chairs the Mind-Body Medicine Initiative at Mayo Clinic.