As a PA student, I am learning how to put together a patient's symptoms and past medical history to create a list of what is called "differential diagnoses," which is used to help form a diagnosis and treatment plan. The symptoms are like pieces to a puzzle that, when put together, reveal the full picture. Learning these techniques has made me look at our world in a similar way.
One of modern society's symptoms includes avoiding suffering; and, our self-prescribed treatment is egocentrism. Additionally, history reveals man's constant struggle with accepting pain. Looking at these presentations, at the top of my differential diagnosis list is pathophobia, meaning a fear of suffering. And it is understandable. Written in our biology is an aversion toward pain and suffering because it is a threat to our existence. Take a wound for instance. It could lead to bleeding out, or an infection, if left untreated. Our inherent evasion of pain and suffering is a self-preservation instinct.
However, there is much pain and suffering that is not life-threatening. Yet, we still react to it in the same way as we would react to a fatal wound. There are many things that can cause pain, physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, throughout the day. You may be slighted by your coworker or friend, you may be laughed at, or you may have to skip that meal you have been looking forward to because of your workload. For many people, suffering is not that severe most of the time, as shown by the #firstworldproblems hashtag. People lament their Starbucks order getting messed up or that they are cold because they forgot to bring their jacket to work today, and then post about it, joking or seriously, on social media to attract more attention. These are very superficial struggles that do not deserve to be complained about because there are so many more people who do not even have enough to buy a coffee or a jacket. Sometimes though, you may experience severe suffering - a family member's death, a chronic illness, losing your job, or a natural disaster. These are, unfortunately, unavoidable parts of human existence. We must accept both of these types of suffering, and find meaning in their greater purpose.
Many virtuous people have told of the inevitability of suffering. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, tells us that, "without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete." How ironic is it that life is contingent upon death and suffering? We cannot fully know that we are alive without knowing what the opposite of life is. It is because of death and suffering that we value life. Another person laden with physical suffering, Helen Keller, wrote, "only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." She, who knew adversity on a daily basis, understood it as a way through which she could grow in virtue. Likewise, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, saw beauty in suffering. He says, "suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind." This "greatness of mind" is the virtue of being able to step outside of your suffering and see a greater purpose in the hardship.
Jesus Christ gives profound meaning to our suffering. He tells us, "in the world you will have trouble," admitting that it is inevitable (John 16:33). The encounters in the Gospels are often with people suffering, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Through them, Jesus teaches us that our suffering is not a punishment. He tells his disciples, regarding a man blind from birth, "neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him" (John 9:3). Jesus did not come to the world to acquit our suffering. Rather, he came to show us how to suffer and to redeem our suffering through his Passion - his suffering. He has felt our hurt, and carried it on his shoulders. The second part of John 16:33 continues, "but take courage, for I have conquered the world." Christ relieves our suffering through his compassion, literally meaning to suffer with another.
It is the acceptance of our burdens and our uniting them with His cross that allows us to grow in virtue. In John 16, under the subtitle "the conditions of discipleship," Jesus tells us,
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?" (John 16:24-26)
Ironically, by accepting our suffering, it is eased, by Christ. It is a part of our being his disciple. And, it is not that we must begrudgingly accept our cross by ourself, so that we may reach heaven. Rather, if we allow Christ to, he walks beside us on the journey to salvation. He helps give meaning to our suffering in the present moment by accompanying us and reminding us how our suffering is a part of his salvific mission.
So, this is our treatment plan as a society. We have the opportunity to step outside of our daily suffering and to see a greater purpose in it. It may come as embracing the difficulties of your studies, allowing yourself to grow in discipline and wisdom. Or, it can be sacrificing your dessert as redemptive suffering for a sick friend. With Christ's help, we can offer up our suffering for a greater purpose - for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world. And one day, we will be able to be where "there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain" (Revelation 21:4). If we do not let our suffering control us, but see it as a chance for grace and challenge toward growth, we will continue to increase in virtue each day and attract others toward a similar lifestyle.