A couple of weeks ago there was a video that was making the rounds on social media from an interview that Anderson Cooper did with Stephen Colbert on CNN. The video was one of the most genuine human interactions that I’ve ever seen on television. Both Cooper and Colbert have had to deal with a lot of pain during their lifetimes, stemming from loss that they suffered when they were young. I was moved to tears as I listened to these two men discuss grief and suffering.
You said “what punishment of gods are not gifts. Do you really believe that?” @andersoncooper, choking back tears, asks Stephen Colbert, as they discuss grief.— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) August 16, 2019
“Yes,” replies the comedian. “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.” pic.twitter.com/p5rUUhZKxq
In the video (which I have posted above and recommend you watch,) Anderson Cooper asks Colbert about a quote from a previous interview, in which he said that he had, “learned to love the thing that I most wish had not happened…,” and went on to say, “what punishment of gods are not gifts.” When asked if he really believed that, Colbert answered that he did, and beautifully stated why. “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.”
I have had an (almost) daily practice of journaling for a little while now, which I always begin with listing three things that I am grateful for. It feels weird to list a painful experience on a gratitude list, but part of the practice is to increase the scope of our awareness of what we can feel grateful for. One of the things that really stood out to me in the Colbert interview was when he said, “If you are grateful for your life…, you have to be grateful for all of it.” It doesn’t mean that we have to want those things to happen, but it is worth contemplating that it is only by an extraordinarily improbable and fortunate accident that we even exist at all, and a part of that gift of existence is suffering.
There are two specific aspects of this idea of gratitude for our suffering that I have been thinking about recently. One of them is compassion and empathy. Our suffering can add a layer of understanding of what other people are going through. When we are willing and able to discuss our suffering, it can also create a safe place for others to open up about what they are going through. Stephen Colbert puts this really well in the interview –
“What do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being if it’s true that all humans suffer.”Stephen Colbert
The second aspect of gratitude for suffering that has been on my mind is the growth that our suffering can bring about. Although I wouldn’t put my experience on the same level as the trauma that Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper are discussing, I have experienced suffering from the loss of my marriage over the last couple of years. As painful as that experience has been, the last year has been the most productive period of growth in my life. I can honestly say that I would not have experienced that growth without the suffering that I endured. My experience lead me to examine my life and to seek insight into what had happened and how I could skillfully deal with my pain.
The act of gratitude toward those experiences that are painful is counterintuitive, and it isn’t easy, especially before we have had time to put some distance between ourselves and the source of our pain. It is, however, a practice of tremendous love toward ourselves and toward others. We acknowledge the miracle of our existence, and the gift of everything that comes with it. We free ourselves to move forward in acceptance. We make ourselves available to serve other people, all of whom share in the suffering inherent in being human.