Q: “Even suffering is an opportunity to learn compassion…”  I find this idea always difficult when in real life children, babies are suffering by the hands of grown ups, sometimes their own parents even. What should they learn? Compassion?  That is why I cannot deal with any of these deeper thoughts, trying to make sense of it all and in my view, failing miserably at it. In essence there is suffering and non suffering. We who do not really suffer, tell others who do suffer severely, that they should learn lessons like compassion. Our suffering is minor to some cruel suffering in the world. I am done with this path… – Renée

A:  Of course you are right Renée! No one should ever suggest to someone in deep pain, at the height of their pain, that this is a learning opportunity! Just as you say, the beaten child, or the raped girl, the concentration camp prisoner, the torture victim, should be, first, saved, in whatever we can save them. We should forcefully end their suffering if we can, not tell them their suffering is good for them! Their suffering is terrible; there is nothing good about it. In the midst of their pain all we can do is feel their pain as deeply as we can, grieve over it, maybe even rage over it, and, as I said, stop it in any way we can, if we can.

And yet, the teachings about compassion and suffering of the world’s great religions still hold up. They are telling us that in the long run, in order to fully heal from the trauma (for the pain doesn’t end when the immediate causes end — after the abuse, after the rape, after liberation from the camp, after the torture, the pain goes on) a person must eventually accept that what happened happened, and must learn to forgive internally, in order to grow and love. If they don’t do this the pain will go on and on. This may take a lifetime. Maybe it can’t happen at all. But if and when it does, the person will say — no matter how horrible the trauma — that he or she has learned from it, and has been opened up to love and understanding. Don’t take my word for this. Take the word of the many thousands of people who have been through living hell and have come out the other side, eventually, with their hearts broken open. You are correct that only such people (certainly Thich Nhat Hanh is one of them) have the right to truly speak of these teachings. The rest of us can only be humble in the face of real suffering.