“Though you grind a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his foolishness will not depart from him” (Proverbs 27:22).
NOT ALL WHO SUFFER LEARN THE LESSONS THAT SUFFERING CAN TEACH. The Proverbs vividly describe the fool who is chastened often by life’s painful experiences but never learns what he’s being taught. The wise person pays attention to pain, making the right changes in his life when he sees what the consequences of wrongful behavior are. Yet the fool pays no heed. He blames and he complains, but he doesn’t learn. “As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11).
How can we avoid this foolishness? When we suffer, how can we keep our eyes open and gain a greater wisdom?
Much could be said, but the answer comes down to this: only the tender heart is teachable. When we find ourselves responding to pain with resentment, it’s probable that our hearts have started to become tough and unteachable. Self-pity, bitterness, and suchlike often tempt us when our hearts are heavy. But if we choose a “hard” response to suffering — that is, if we turn away from either reverence or gratitude — then we lose the humility that is required for learning. But there is also a danger on the other side. If we find ourselves becoming secretly proud of the “humble” way we’re dealing with our difficulties, then this martyr-spirit will likewise keep us from learning as we should. To be teachable, we must be neither cynical nor sanctimonious.
James wrote, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2–4). In the end, it is self-centeredness that prevents patience from having its perfect work. To gain wisdom from our suffering, our focus must not be on ourselves. The main object in life is neither to defend ourselves against suffering nor to exploit it self-righteously, but to seek a greater Truth outside of ourselves.
“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable” (Anne Morrow Lindbergh).