We use the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” to reassure ourselves that when we overcome hardship, something good happens: we grow.
In one of my undergraduate psychology courses, I learned that we actually learn more by taking tests than any other form of learning, or even preparing for tests. Exams are excellent educational learning tools. Unfortunately for students, however, exams are usually at the end of a unit — and formal feedback as to whether you sufficiently understand a topic or not comes too late.
In life, however, tests come and go. They often repeat themselves, and many of us receive opportunity after opportunity to practice what we have learned and improve ourselves as we overcome challenges. The Baha’i writings say that suffering, which most of us avoid at all costs, is actually essential to bringing out our most noble qualities: “It is only through suffering that the nobility of character can make itself manifest.” How does suffering lead to nobility?
Even great spiritual leaders and prophets suffered. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith said in a talk in 1911 that: “The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be… Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most.”
In my own experience, the hardest times in my life have pushed me to rely on God the most. Loss and grief can cloud your mind, but your soul becomes raw — and with that rawness comes clarity. We can learn how to rise to the occasion and persevere, trusting in God even when we cannot understand why things happen. By becoming humbled, we learn to forgive ourselves and those around us.
But what then of self-preservation? If suffering can be such a catalyst for change, does that mean that we should actively seek pain?
While the Baha’i writings encourage us to worry less about personal satisfaction and sacrifice our comfort for the sake of others, they also warn against depleting ourselves of joy and peace. We still need to be able to function with enough strength to effectively serve humanity. The Universal House of Justice, the international administrative body of the Baha’i Faith, wrote that we should “develop the spiritual muse not to dwell on our suffering but to turn our attention away to the great and many sources of our joy.”
We also can’t dismiss the suffering of others in the name of growth. The Universal House of Justice also noted that “we must not allow ourselves to forget the continuing, appalling burden of suffering under which millions of human beings are always groaning… the principal cause of this suffering, which one can witness wherever one turns, is the corruption of human morals and the prevalence of prejudice, suspicion, hatred, untrustworthiness, selfishness and tyranny among men.”
Keeping this balance in mind is a first step to understanding how to accept challenges for growth and practice empathy for others, while also maintaining enough energy to live with joy.