David Brooks on “What Suffering Does”

I’m preparing to teach next week on writing to heal, a subject on which my thoughts have yet to settle into a “set piece.”

A couple of months back I posted about Jessica Handler’s book Braving the Fire, an excellent guide to writing about grief and loss. “Suffering is a teacher, and  writing  is a way of taking lessons from it,” I wrote there. That’s my biggest insight so far. A small thing, but my own.

A couple of days ago I came across an opinion column in the New York Times by David Brooks, titled “What Suffering Does.” Now, Brooks is the columnist I most love to hate, or hate it when I love… he is so steeped in his white male privilege, so quick to assume that whatever interests him is a societal force, so moralistically Republican. And yet he can toss off a squib that delights me to the core, or capture something about our shared Boomer experience that reverberates like a rung bell; I just have to nod in  recognition that he got it right. Petty jealousy–that could best describe me vis-a-vis David Brooks.

Brooks_New-articleInline Brooks_New-articleInline-inverted

This recent column is a perfect example. He advanced my thinking on writing to heal, I grumpily admit.

Here’s what Brooks wrote that inspired me to draw your attention to “What Suffering Does.”

…When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering….

…people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it….

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.

That helps me see what “writing to heal” is about, perhaps–not healing like recovering from disease, but exploring how you have come out different, and what the gifts of that alchemical transformation might be.

If this intrigues you, read Brooks’ full text here…  and let me know what you think. Another load of moral sermonizing–we’re not doing suffering “right” if we don’t redeem it as something sacred? Or a pointer toward joyfulness in the midst of suffering, as the Bhudda would have us live?

-Sarah White




About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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1 Response to David Brooks on “What Suffering Does”

  1. Sara says:

    I too loved this column although I share your feelings about David Brooks. I appreciate your recommendation of Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. That book has been really helpful.



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