18 pages 36 minutes read

Maya Angelou

The Lesson

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1978

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The Virtue of Suffering

In an opening declaration of “I keep on dying again” (Line 1), the poem argues that suffering enhances the experience of life, an argument that runs counter to logic. Pain, suffering, and anxieties are negative pressures to be avoided. Whatever wonders the world has to offer, whatever positive energies can be felt every day, whatever the rewards of relationships—these are all marginalized, rendered ironic in the need to adjust to the dark weight of suffering.

The lesson that Angelou’s speaker shares, however, is that such suffering ennobles the human spirit, makes a person more aware, more alert, and, ironically, more alive. The experience of traumatic suffering day in and day out across years until suffering itself becomes the norm endows the spirit of the speaker, who endures such pain with a sense of imperial triumph. “I love to live” (Line 13), the poem concludes, suggesting that awareness of suffering gives that experience its spiritual reward.

It is not that the speaker embraces suffering or seeks it out. Rather, the speaker concedes, in keeping with Angelou’s Christian faith, that suffering is inevitable, and only the recklessly naïve or dangerously romantic pretend otherwise. Nor does the speaker melodramatically contemplate the act of suicide as a concession to suffering.