Suffering for perfection
October 30, 2008

A few weeks back, while reading a book by Somerset Maugham,  I was struck by a comment made by one of the characters about suffering. He said: “It’s not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

Well, I have to say it got me thinking about whether or not that’s really the case. Does suffering ennoble the character, or make us petty and vindictive?

Image after image of human suffering went through my head – the starving mothers and children of Africa, HIV ravaged communities in developing countries, the wounded and dispossessed in war zones and the orphaned victims of man-made tragedies. Does suffering ennoble their character? I think you may come to the same conclusion I did.

But then I got to thinking about people whose suffering changed them from ordinary people going about their day to day lives, into extraordinary champions of justice and education. There are numerous examples here in the United Kingdom. Diana Lamplugh, the mother who became one of the country’s foremost experts on personal safety, after her daughter disappeared while working as an estate agent twenty years ago. Or what about Colin Parry who established a trust to help children learn peace-building skills after his son Tim was killed in the IRA bombing of Warrington?  And there are plenty of others.

According to the Bahá’í teachings, personal suffering shouldn’t make us petty and vindictive, but should be regarded as opportunity for spiritual growth.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, one of the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, was well qualified to speak about suffering, spending more than 50 years of His life as an exile and prisoner.

He wrote: “Men who suffer not attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit… Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest of men have suffered most.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the human spirit has a great capacity to turn despair into hope, tragedy into constructive action and grief into forgiveness and progress.