Editor’s Letter: On Suffering as StrengthBy Angelica Malin
My best friend is a superhero. You wouldn’t know it, because not all superheroes wear capes. In fact, lots of superheroes don’t even wear “please offer me your seat” badges on the tube (although they probably should), out of some misplaced sense of belief of not “being sick enough”.
You see, my best friend is in pain. Like thousands of people in the UK, she suffers with an invisible illness – a chronic pain condition which, for the last seven years, has lead her to countless doctor’s waiting rooms, late night pharmacies, supposed specialists, to feelings of despair and hope. She’s had false starts, misdiagnoses and, frankly, medical neglect, at every twist and turn. It’s no way to spend your 20s, but she has soldiered on, without a hint of complaint, for years. She is brave beyond belief, and inspires me daily.
But, like so many, her pain has existed mainly in private – a secret that lives behind closed doors, hushed between friends, a topic for medical professionals and close allies only. There is still so much we don’t know about pain – and don’t seem to be able to talk about – how it affects our daily lives, our personal relationships, our families, our sense of self.
I have been thinking about suffering a lot, recently. It’s natural that we want to avoid suffering – to run away from pain, to escape discomfort. But sometimes pain is part of our story. I would take away my friend’s pain in a heartbeat, if I could, but I also know that pain is what makes my darling girl so special – so kind, so empathic, so connected. It’s a part of her story that has shaped the very fabric of her nature, and made her the beautiful soul she is. It’s made her understand herself more deeply – to connect with her body, to know her limits, to be soft and gentle with herself – and it’s a part of her story that I hope, one day, she will look back on and think “that was tough, but so was I”.
There is nothing about pain which is a personal failure. It is not a reflection of your self-worth, success or the space you occupy in the world. I don’t know who needs to hear this: but we are not defined by our struggles. We are defined by the way in which we face them.
I would take it away, yes. But I can’t. So instead, we learn from suffering. Like a rose growing amongst thorns, beauty comes out suffering – think of the person we become in the course of tackling the difficulties that life throws at us. It’s not just physical pain. Break-ups, loss, grief, change – suffering is a natural course of life – and it’s the ways we shape-shift around our pain, and how we choose to let it affect us, that’s really where the growth happens.
The best people in life are always those that have suffered; ones who appreciate the better days, who know that life is fragile, precious and special, and to remember the little moments of joy, like cups of tea, hot water bottles and box sets, even when it feels like the world around you is falling down.
So this is my little message to you, G. To thank you, for being my teacher. You have taught me so much about compassion, love and sheer strength of character over the years, and it has been a privilege to care for you. And just a reminder, too – that each day we grow a bit more, and I cannot wait to grow old with you.