As a clinical researcher, I spend a lot of time in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Ever since I started, I’ve found a sense of identity and belonging here.
I’m not sure what draws me to it. Perhaps it is that as I walk around, I imagine my future and how I will fit into the medical system. It’s a system so complex, so intricate, yet somehow very effective. I wonder what my role will be in alleviating the suffering of my patients. Will I physically heal them by training my hands to perform amazing feats of surgery? Will I console them and their families as they struggle to navigate a new diagnosis? But for now, I will settle for trying to understand their experiences first. Because for all my time in the ICU, the question that still rings in my head is what did these kids and families do to deserve all this suffering?
Biochemistry has come a long way in understanding the molecular roots of illness: invasive pathogens, genetic mutations, vitamin deficiencies, and dysfunctional proteins. Stimulating nerve cells can cause pain, and chemical imbalances can cause depression. Sometimes random occurrences disturb delicate equilibria.
Brought up in a practicing Jain household, I was also presented with another logical explanation from Karma Theory – the children must have committed terrible acts in their past lives. In the present moment, their suffering was inevitable, but if they took the right steps, they could secure for themselves a much happier future. But looking at these children in their hospital cribs, covered with tubes, often sedated and unable speak or cry, this explanation seems wholly unsatisfactory. What deed could be so terrible that it would justify this much suffering to a child so young he cannot even repent?
I’ve come to think about suffering in the following way. We create a certain trajectory for how we think we want our lives to play out. This is shaped by our worldview: all of our assumptions, beliefs, and goals. And normally, we don’t think much about any of these. But then there’s a shock: a traumatic event that deeply shatters our worldview. We are left with an undefined, broken identity. We suffer in this period of uncertainty as we try to make sense of our existence. Why me? Why now? And then we are left to begin again from the ground up.
If suffering is the shattering of one’s identity, then healing is the forging of a new one.
Over the past decade, researchers have become interested in a concept called post-traumatic growth. According to this theory, the rebuilding phase after traumatic events is a time of great personal growth and creativity. We begin to make sense of our situation and learn from it. We accept reality and chart a new trajectory.
Clearly, trauma and suffering are tragic regardless of the growth that may occur afterwards, and post-traumatic growth often occurs in combination with sadness, anger, and despair. Suffering is never something we would wish upon ourselves or anyone else. But it is remarkable that suffering can lead to growth beyond the baseline.
I believe to understand suffering is to understand life.
Everyone suffers at some point. And while some suffer more than others, suffering allows us to all connect with each other. It is times of hardship that bring together individuals and communities the closest. It is in times of adversity that we struggle to find meaning in our lives, but often, we come out of these adverse times with a far greater sense of purpose.
Karma theory may be justice in its most perfect form. However, mercy, compassion, and community seem to trump justice. When someone suffers, we don’t just blame molecular pathways. We don’t say that they deserved it because of their past actions and move on with our lives. We stop and empathize.
In difficult times, when community comes together and relationships grow stronger, my goal is not to prevent all suffering, but rather to help those who are suffering make sense of their circumstances. I want to help people forge a new identity, to help them transition from suffering to healing.
Reanimated by Parth Shah | College Class of 2018