Common Ground

Common Ground Essay

By Lisa Dietz

I am not a stranger to suffering. The story of my life is a bizarre tale of torture and brainwashing at the hands of my father that reads like a Stephen King horror novel. My mom and I escaped from my violent and psychotic father when I was young. Many years later, when I was five-months pregnant, he kidnapped me, held a gun to my head, and imprisoned me overseas in the remote countryside. Apparently he was interested in experimenting with brainwashing techniques and he accurately assumed that using a close blood relative would make his subject more pliable and less prone to escape. Despite the severity of my situation, I believe that we all suffer equally.

Trauma and suffering fill a person to capacity because that's the nature of it. In his book, "Man's Search for Meaning," I like the way Viktor Frankl compares the suffering of Jews in the holocaust to a gas. You can put a certain amount of gas into an empty jug and the gas will fill the jug. You can take that exact same amount of gas and put it into a sealed room and the gas will also fill the room. It expands or contracts to the capacity of its container. In the same way, when a person suffers, they are filled with that suffering and it is as uncomfortable for them in the moment as it is for anyone else.

At this moment, I feel that I have endured the limit of my suffering. I don't want to suffer more and if I were asked to voluntarily suffer, I would decline. (I'm not talking about the kind of suffering we do for our children, I'm talking about trauma that is externally introduced to our lives.) If I meet another person with another story that is not seemingly as difficult as mine, that person is still filled to capacity by their suffering.

Common simple explanations about suffering don't convince me that we are all on our own. For instance there is a saying, "God won't give you more than you can handle." I don't agree. Suffering occurs and we either rise to the occasion or we don't. I happened to have survived the traumas of my life. Maybe another person would not have. When someone survives a trauma, we may be impressed by their courage at overcoming the odds. When they don't survive. . . well, they aren't around to tell their courageous story. I just can't believe there's some sort of self-righteous entity out there assessing how much you can handle and then pushing you to your limits. That seems cruel and pointless.
People relate to the suffering of others because it is an experience we share in common. Suffering is a strong universal bond, that even transcends language. Irrelevant to a person's culture and language, I can relate to their pain when I witness it, which is why I cry at the movies.

Bottom line, suffering cannot be measured. However, our reaction to the experience of suffering is highly personal . If I had a twin who endured the exact same things that I have endured at the exact same time, the resulting behavior would be her own. We are each individuals with freedom of thought and choice. When I consider the story of my father's upbringing, his behavior makes more sense. His meanness didn't erupt out of some sort of vacuum, but was the result of how he chose to react to his life circumstances. I use the word, "chose" very carefully here. It is popular these days to say, "you can choose how you feel or what you do or how you're going to react." That may be true but the word "choose" is much too short and simplistic to accurately describe human deliberation. It aught to be a complicated 100 letter word, because life is a process. My story gives testament to this. Only in retrospect have I been able to understand my choices to survive and recover, but it was a very long, drawn-out, complex process. I don't think my father ever sat down and thought, "my life really sucks so I think I'll terrorize everyone I meet from now on." Only hindsight reveals his choice. After years of terrorizing me, I chose differently. I chose not to pass on his abusive behavior.

What's more, the survival of trauma speaks not of the capacity of the individual as much as it speaks of the awesome capacity of the human spirit to survive and thrive. Many people are moved to tears when they read my story. If suffering was all about the individual, they would not be influenced by it. When I read Frankl's reflections on being a holocaust survivor, I could relate to his feelings. I haven't been in his shoes and yet I know on some level exactly what he means.

I am not trying to diminish what I went through or the incredible tenacity and courage required to survive. It is truly amazing and if it were not me, I would be amazed by the other person who survived it. I am talking about that seemingly incomprehensible question, "Why me?" In the Bible when Job asked God this question the answer was, "why not you?" Suffering is an unfair and impersonal tragedy bereft of any hidden agenda of innate judgment. It happens. We experience it in common. We choose our reactions independently. We survive, grow and mature or we don't.

I believe the benefit of telling our stories of suffering is so others can witness the universal "suffering gas" that fills us to capacity and binds us together. I would like to believe that my story could help you to know that whatever direction your life takes, because you are human, you have the same ability to survive, recover and transcend. When it comes to suffering, my journey is your journey and yours is mine. If you are amazed by the capacity of my spirit, be amazed as well by your own for we journey together.

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