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The Difference between Hardship and Suffering, and Why It Matters


Recently I have been thinking about hardship and about suffering and how often we confuse the two and how that can get us into trouble. In almost any area of life, there’s a line between suffering and hardship. Suffering always involves hardship, but I don’t think hardship always involves suffering.

So in the physical realm I would put most injury and disease in the category of suffering and most discomfort in the category of hardship. When it comes to the emotions, there’s a distinction to be made between the suffering of severe emotional loss and the hardship we experience when we are disappointed about something. And in the social realm, social rejection and exclusion and bullying might count as suffering whereas learning how to navigate the drama of the middle school lunch table might count as hardship.

We (I!) too often conflate suffering with hardship. When we do this, we can err in two directions. One, we can think that suffering is necessary for our growth as human beings. Now, suffering certainly can help us grow as humans. But it also can crush us. Some of the worst platitudes come in the midst of horror and tragedy. “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”-type sayings are an attempt to pretend that suffering is just hardship, just an opportunity for growth rather than a manifestation of brokenness and evil in the world.

Hardship, on the other hand, does seem necessary to our growth. Necessary, and even good. But since we want to avoid suffering (for good reason) in our own lives and particularly for our children, we might end up avoiding hardship at the same time and cutting ourselves off from growth.

We cannot avoid suffering (though I wish we could and I think it is good to try to protect ourselves and our children from suffering in many cases). But we often can avoid hardship, and I see the ways that avoiding hardship has ended up harming me and our kids.

I recognize that even talking about the CHOICE to avoid hardship is a sign of living with an unprecedented amount of economic stability and with education and opportunity most of the world does not know and has never known. But that’s my reality and the reality of many Americans. We have to choose what has usually been assumed.

Still, I’m trying to choose hardship, at least sometimes–the little things like walking in the rain (unpleasant rain, not lovely spring rain) and being wet and cold and getting through it. Or making our children endure the disappointment of not getting the same amount of dessert as their sibling when the sibling’s friend has a birthday party at school. Or pushing through an awkward social situation. Or pushing through an illness or a bad night of sleep or the disorienting news of an unexpected diagnosis.

When I have chosen to avoid hardship, I thought I was keeping us from suffering when really I was keeping us from growing up.

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