suffering

Blessed are Those Who Suffer

“In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). This verse has brought me consolation amidst the trials of my life for a long time. At the age of four-and-a-half, I was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer. It was a huge shock to my family. I did not have a normal childhood, to say the least. I am very blessed to have had the support of my family, friends, and doctors to help me through my treatment at such a young age. After going through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and physical therapy I was prognosed to be cancer free. Yet, I still deal with the effects of battling cancer at such a young age. I have some physical limitations, and I still deal with the reality of being robbed of part of my life by a serious illness. Throughout the years, I have revisited the reality of suffering. Below, are some of my reflections. Though I have spent time thinking about this topic, I still struggle with embracing suffering each day. I hope my thoughts can deepen some of your own reflection on the problem of pain.

Suffering, toil, and death, are the price of the fall of man in Genesis. God tells Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes. People experience it at all stages in their life. It can be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Often, we feel alone in our suffering because we think that we are the only one experiencing such hurt, that no one understands what we are experiencing, and we do not see a purpose in our suffering.

Thankfully, Christ is a mend for all of those concerns. He comes to carry our crosses with us; He took all of our suffering upon Himself on the cross; and, He gives meaning to our suffering by giving it an eternal purpose it through His passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus’s life is a model for us to “deny [ourselves] and take up [our] cross daily and follow [Him]” (Luke 9:23). Throughout the Gospels, he sacrifices his public image and personal comfort, embracing the more humble and selfless path. Ultimately, it is his submission to this way of life that leads him to fulfill the Father’s will. Through his suffering and death on the cross, He redeemed all aspects of mankind, including our own suffering. Our adversity can participate in His salvific mission and His sacrifice. St. John Paul II advises us that, “Jesus Christ has taken the lead on the way of the cross. He has suffered first. He does not drive us toward suffering but shares it with us, wanting us to have life and to have it in abundance.” We can give our daily sufferings to Him, that they may participate in His cross. Better yet, we can offer them to Our Lady who can perfect our gift, and present them to Jesus more perfectly that we can.

Blessed are they who suffer well. I have been reflecting on this phrase recently. It seems to fit well with the other labels in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:3-12). Suffering is to live out the Beatitudes in this world because they are a humble, uncomfortable lifestyle. In our society, suffering has become very taboo. Ironically, we lament the suffering of those less fortunate than us; yet, we flee from it, whenever it comes our way. Nonetheless, there are those who bravely accept the suffering in their life, knowing that it is actually good for them. St Teresa of Ávila tells us, “we always find that those who walked closest to Christ were those who had to bear the greatest trials.” In the same paradoxical way that true love is the giving of oneself for the good of another, welcoming suffering is the way by which we become detached from our pride and selfishness, and are formed more perfectly into who we were made to be. St. Mother Teresa echos the words of St. Teresa of Ávila when she said, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” I often find that when I encounter a homeless person, they seem to be some of the most grateful people that I have met. I believe that their suffering helps them to see the world more clearly because they have fewer comforts and distractions to blur their understanding of who they are.

I have witnessed a similar effect in my own life. As I mentioned, I still deal with some physical limitations from the brain cancer that I survived as a child. For example, some daily tasks are a bit more difficult for me to accomplish than for other people to complete. Often, I deal with bitterness towards and jealousy of others who do not have to deal with the same struggles. But, when I try to be thankful for the many abilities that I do have, instead of focusing on the few crosses that I bear, I am able to find meaning in the midst of my suffering. Similarly, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wisely noted, “when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Many things do not cause us to suffer of their own power. Rather, we perceive them as such. I am not trying to say that certain things do not cause harm to us. There is a difference between causing actual detriment and causing temporary discomfort. For example, a weapon surely causes harm; but, a short sickness, or a stressful time at work, cause discomfort. When we encounter challenging circumstances in life, we should not run from them just because they are difficult. We should accept them, knowing that Christ redeemed our suffering to lead us and others to heaven. We should not choose to see these challenges as suffering; instead, we should strive for joy in the midst of our trials. It does not come easily; but, with dedication to taking up your crosses daily, you can begin to better see how Christ is using those sufferings as a part of His eternal plan to bring you to heaven.

I would encourage you to take some time to meditate on what crosses you have in your life, how you deal with them now, and how you can unite yourself more with Christ. Then, he may help you bear them; and, he may show you how they are there to help you become more like you were made to be.

A Cultural Diagnosis with a Christocentric Cure

 

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.

Suffering Makes Us Stronger...But Why?

They decorate colleges across America, my Facebook newsfeed is brimming with them, and for some reason, I’m always torn between fascination and annoyance when I confront them. If you’re thinking “political shouting matches” – well, you’re probably right – but this time I’m talking about motivational quotes, particularly motivational quotes about suffering. Suffering, and defeating it, are often the subject of catchy lines, in trendy fonts, across mountain-scapes. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Inspirational quotes offer us some variation on this theme. I think the appeal of these formulations has two parts:

First, it gives meaning and purpose to suffering. This sentence fosters the belief that suffering is happening for a reason, and, consequently, the world happens for a reason.

Second, it gives us a sense of control. We have power, not only over the suffering, but over our response to it. Hiding in this statement is another statement as well: We will make ourselves stronger by defeating suffering.

Perhaps the easiest answer to these inspirational quotes is dismissal. Try to power play with the universe, just try. The skeptic argues. Ultimately the universe wins. We die. I admit sometimes “the skeptic” speaks in my own voice. Like I said, I’m frustrated – frustrated with the pretty-packaged enthusiasm of “inspirationalism.”

Yet I’m still fascinated by inspirational messages.

But – why? Well, I have both suffered and watched others suffer. I want something to say. I want an answer. I can philosophize on “the problem of evil” or “the problem of pain” – but most importantly, it is a question that demands an answer from me.

Is there meaning in suffering? What about meaning in the world? Is there a plan? I experience these questions most when, selfishly I admit, I personally am the one suffering. But I also desire happiness for other people. 

And I’m not alone. This desire is a great human trait. We find it in history, in literature, in art, and in science. Seriously, who has browsed through “Humans of New York” and not wanted each person profiled to live a happy life? We want their lives to have meaning too. I’ve seen too much love for my voice to be the skeptic’s voice. Still, something nags me at the words “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Makes me stronger. 

Is that really what I want?

Well, no. Not exactly. I do want to be stronger, but only so I can have something else, like the admiration of my friends or recognition as a cool person. This realization has helped me understand St. Paul’s frequently quoted words about suffering from his Letter to the Romans. 

" . . .We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. . .”

Exactly! You might be thinking. Suffering makes you stronger! But read on.

 “. . .and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5).

Suffering produces many things, but ultimately the most important is hope. St. Paul is clear. We don’t don’t become stronger and that’s it. We become hopeful because of God’s love.  This matches my realization that I don’t really want to be stronger for its own sake, I want to be loved.

Furthermore, St. Paul deliberately draws us back to God’s love which is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We are given the love that makes the hope possible. The love makes the hope not disappoint us. We are given these things. I think that’s important. Hiding in inspirational mantras is that second appeal I mentioned earlier: the sense of control. But St. Paul’s ideal is different. Suffering for a Christian is not just another power play. It is not simply another way for us to flex our muscles and create ourselves. 

God’s love poured into our hearts is radically different than the other options. It’s not a stronger, leaner, tougher me who can simply take more. It’s not a submission to the mindlessness of the universe. It’s a question of whether God’s love has given meaning to our suffering. Will he be with us, strengthening us through his outpouring of love to make us strong, full of character, and ultimately, hopeful?

For me, yes, but for you, I have to ask you, which do you prefer?