Learning to Suffer

A blog post written first for CavanKerry

Several years ago, I was invited to be on a panel at a writers conference. The participants were asked to talk about the topic, “Can Poetry Be Healing?” We all gathered or were stuffed into a rather small meeting Room. It seemed that most everyone attending the conference came to this particular panel. I laughed to myself as I imagined that, like being in the audience of a phony evangelist, they had come to be healed. I wasn’t sure if they would find that funny or even amusing.

The first panelist began by stating outright that in no way can poetry be healing.

He talked about the loved people he had lost to cancer, accidents, any number of other physical cruelties that he never could imagine poetry possibly healing.

The second panelist seconded the first’s conclusion. She added that she had read many a poem, none of which would heal anyone, that many poems would likely only make things worse.

My turn. Well, all along I had figured that we would all be agreeing that poetry can heal. So, whew, here I come now cast as the antagonist. That’s a part I flee from playing. And so I agreed with them. Then I said that there may be another way of looking at poetry and its possible connection to healing. There is the illness and/or the pain, but there is an inner suffering as well. And so I followed, somewhat self-consciously, with my story…

By the time I was 35, I had been in and out of six psychiatric units, lost a marriage and a young child, had worked with easily a dozen therapists, taken so many drugs that several times I had to go into cold turkey before they “tried another,” and along the way had been given a total of thirteen shock treatments. Nothing relieved my suffering. (I can go into what did, but that’s not the import of this blog.)

Among the effects of my experiencing ten traumatic events as a very young child was an inability to suffer. What does that mean? For one thing it meant that there was no way that I could trudge down the blue highway to healing until I was capable of experiencing the pain that accompanies recovery. I needed to discover suffering. It was this realization that enabled me to “go on” and arrive where I am today, talking to you.

However, what might help? I couldn’t read even a sentence that described the least sense of suffering without plunging back into the need for caregiving. I had tried to read the gentlest of books, Ring of Bright Water. It wasn’t long before I put it down.

At some point I decided to try reading poetry, lyric poetry. Most of it was short. I could read the first few lines and see if I was able to go on. And I wrote poems, not very effectively, but with enough artistic technique to create a sense of control over what I put down on one of those yellow legal tablets.

After a week or so I found myself no longer putting the words away. I kept reading. I suppose it was fortunate that I was reading lyric poetry, and a lot of it was lyric poetry about those who suffered and/or by those who suffered, because at some point—slow learner that I am—I realized that “That’s it!” Most of those who wrote or spoke these poems were able to, somehow, live within their suffering. And so I read and read and wrote and read myself into the realization that something in me was becoming able to experience, to feel, that which one must be able to face.

And so it was this story that I told for my panel presentation—my explanation of why poetry just might be able to heal, to assure us that we can suffer, perhaps comfort us, help us feel we aren’t alone, that someone understands. We may even prevail, even if it’s making the day a bit cheerier for those who care for us.

It’s now been thirty plus years since I didn’t know I could suffer. I have lived this time with profound understanding from my wife and daughter. Most certainly, like everyone, I do suffer, but now with the confidence that I can.


8 thoughts on “Learning to Suffer

  1. Jack, this is stunning. A painfully honest reply to a tough question. I believe poetry absolutely can heal us if we are open to the spirit, the suffering and the link with others who suffer too. Poetry touches our emotions, our hearts, our souls even if it is only a few well chosen words, a phrase, an unexpected image that lifts us up with the wonder of creation. Jan Duncan-O’Neal

  2. on your way home
    on a busy autobahn
    after a hard day
    so much depends upon
    a comforting poem
    read by a warm voice

    That’s what I would say to this subject.

    Thank you Jack for this beautiful blog post.

  3. Jack,

    How I love your way of walking in the world, of writing about the world, including its suffering and sorrow.

    I can only say, Amen, to you my brother. You offer a very humble wisdom, one we should heed.

    I’m glad lyric poetry helped you find a way through; if it hadn’t, I’d have a big hole in my life where you stand as my friend.

    Hugs and love,


  4. Jack,
    You know how I suffered during my son’s long illness and obviously since his death. You have always been there for me, and this explains how you do that so well. In my own writing, it has been noted that I quote poetry as often as scripture. Poetry has been profoundly instrumental as I swim through this suffering. I don’t think poetry can lead to healing — I know it can. And your poetry has played a part in that as well. I’m not a writer, but a reader. It is not the act of creating poetry, but the communion that exists when reading it that gives me an anchor.

    Thank you for posting this brave, beautiful, and insightful piece.


  5. It’s 3 in the morning, Jack, and I’m awake, restless with the news of the world — and trying to write poetry. In the midst of it all, I keep remembering your words from this stellar blog post. Such unshielded courage and tenderness of heart! You inspire me to be more courageous and more tender — toward myself first, so I can extend it to others. Embracing suffering permits it to become transformational. Resist or deny it, and it becomes deformational. No wonder I have loved studying with you and learning from you and your incredible poems. I hope I can attend another one of your lovely workshop in the near future. Would you ever consider writing a memoir? Blessed to know you.

  6. As a friend and an active volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), your honesty and eloquence bring me to tears. You are a treasure and bring treasures to others. Thank you.

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