In Defense of Suffering

It was an interesting first date. A few months back, I got together for dinner with a woman I’d met at a party. She was an attractive, intelligent, successful 36-year-old, and we had a lot in common. As our entrees arrived, she asked how I had gotten involved in writing about the intersection of secular culture and faith. I cheekily told her that I’d been immersed in the former my whole life and that my connection to the latter had been formed by a deep commitment to an esoteric school of thought I had developed called “Life’s Fist, My Face.”

I explained a little more seriously that, in my experience, evolving beyond the religion we are taught as children to a more mature faith as adults is intimately tied to how we deal with the suffering that all of us inevitably encounter in our lives. “I completely disagree,” she told me. “I don’t think suffering is inevitable.” I tried to clarify that this wasn’t a Western, Judeo-Christian bias or a masochistic, Irish-Catholic predisposition; Buddhism also discusses suffering at great length. But she held firm to her conviction, and the debate that followed over the next 45 minutes was one of the strangest conversations I'd had in a long time. It was as if she were allergic to the notion of suffering.

Advertisement

I heard a similar resonance when the Gold Star father Khizr Khan rebuked Donald Trump, saying at the Democratic convention in late July, “You have sacrificed nothing.” When Trump later responded, "I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard," it sounded as though the nominee did not fully understand the concept.

Have we become tone deaf to the concept of sacrifice and suffering? We live in an age in which helicopter parents measure their love in direct proportion to their ability to insulate their child from pain. That insularity can be self-imposed as well; we are all capable of endlessly distracting ourselves with our screens and getting our nourishment through highly personalized “feeds.” In this ephemeral reality, I wonder if the language of suffering has become as remote and dead as Aramaic, buried under mountains of diversion and cheaply bought self-esteem.

If so, it is a tremendous loss that robs us of an essential aspect of our humanity: our ability to empathize.

It is through suffering that we are broken down and made to confront our own weakness and vulnerability. This can be a transformative moment, in which we recognize at some deeper level that we are not the center of the universe. It is a moment that either opens us up to a journey in which we move beyond ourselves to see a profound connection between our suffering and the suffering of others, or it marks the beginning of a desperate attempt to reclaim our centrality in the universe.

In light of the harshness, suspicion and demonization of our current national discourse, could it be that we are experiencing a crisis of empathy on some level?

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice,” wrote Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, wrote movingly about his time in Nazi concentration camps, out of which grew his own theory of psychotherapy that posits that human beings’ primary motivational force in life is not pleasure (Freud) or power (Adler) but the striving to find meaning. “The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system,” he wrote. For Frankl, the meaning of life is found in “the self-transcendence of human existence,” which is focused outside the self. “The more one forgets himself...the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

The lesson that suffering was not an end in itself but that it came imbued with a sense of responsibility was brought home to me during a particularly dark time in my own life. “Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,” a Jesuit spiritual director read back to me from Luke’s Gospel, “but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail.” Jesus does not tell Peter that he will be spared suffering, only that he will not be alone in it. But once the tests are over, Jesus’ admonition is simple and direct: “Go back and help your brothers.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
1 year 2 months ago
I was amused at the comment that the woman was "attractive, intelligent, successful" and had a lot in common with the author. That aside, suffering is inevitable in life. Those who avoid suffering often pay the bill with interest later in life because they have no skills for dealing with it. While suffering is inevitable and it does transform us in positive ways, I do tire of those who seem to think that suffering is something to wallow in, as though it is a badge of holiness. By and large, life is something to enjoy and we seldom take sufficient time to celebrate life.
Bruce Snowden
1 year 2 months ago
Hi Bill, You repeatedly write with Biblical insight, gently rocketing to successful touch downs, on the cratered surface of my brain, where other stuff from other excellent sources disintegrate in crash landings. This even though there’s never an article in AMERICA that doesn’t contribute something to my spiritual, intellectual and Catholic perspectives. If I don’t “get it” blame me! I agree with you that, “Suffering Opens Us Up,” and not just by a surgeon’s “knife” more correctly “scalpel” addressing say, a cancer, or maybe in lumbar spine decompression surgery which I recently had. The real “opening” happened in the soul through spiritual resuscitation of the virtue of Compassion spell that “empathy” making it possible to feel your pain for example, in my heart. As you pointed out it’s a “journey” allowing us to see the “profound connection between our suffering and others.” St. Paul goes so far as to say that, our suffering united to Jesus’ “make-up what was lacking” in the Lord’s suffering. Of course we know that nothing was lacking salvificly in the suffering of Jesus and nothing needed to be added to complete them. Obviously St. Paul was talking about the Body of Christ, the Church, whom we are, a Body so sinewed to the physical Body of Jesus, to His Holy Spirit through the grace of Baptism and the other Sacramental unions, that we with Him, in Him and through Him become ONE, Identical. In that sense our sufferings become necessary to complete His, to “make-up what was lacking!” Mind boggling isn’t it? We do have a God Who shares, even His Divine Nature. His sufferings too. The good Sisters were so right when they taught us kids to “offer it up.” This gives suffering an entirely other dimension, opening us up to gracious empathy, sharing in the sufferings of others, helping our brothers and sisters.
ed gleason
1 year 2 months ago
Bruce. " The good Sisters were so right when they taught us kids to “offer it up.” When I was a young man I went room to room at a hospital in the parish with a new convert as Legion of Mary visitors He talked to one bedridden as i did the other . His patient with a leg amputation complained of pain that was felt in toes he did not have. My newbie convert suggested " Offer it up' .... loud shouting and cursing chased us down the hall.. (-: We both have long age and experience with suffering and .I have found that .Word suggestions to the suffering are rare and few
Bruce Snowden
1 year 2 months ago
Ed, So true. That's a funny story about the poor amputee who felt toe pain without having toes and the young man with you telling him to "offer it up." Years ago my sister. a Sister, was distributing Christmas gifts to Nursing Home residents and she gave a gift to a man, a pair of socks, Unfortunately the man had only one foot! Another gift was given as red faces tried to regain normal color. Things happen. God bless you!
Bruce Snowden
1 year 2 months ago
Hi Bill, Accidentally I typed in the wrong name (Nathan) in my post to you, now I can't delete it. But my post is meant for you. Don't know how these crazy things happen. If you know how to delete Nathan please do so.
Bill McGarvey
1 year 2 months ago

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Bruce. I liked it so much I don't even mind if you call me Nathan! Just make sure you call Nathan Schneider "Bill" to even things out. ;)

Bruce Snowden
1 year 2 months ago
Bill, I'm glad you're such a good sport about my dumb mistake. Blame my age I guess, eight and a half decades old, never very retentive and now no better for sure. Don't think I'll tell Nathan Schneider and if I comment on one of his contributions, please God, don't let me call him Bill! Red as in "Red Face" is not my favorite color!
William Rydberg
1 year 2 months ago
It just wouldn't be right not to include: The First Principle and Foundation The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one's end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one's end. To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition. Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE WORK !!! in Christ, Blessed be the Holy Trinity,
Bruce Snowden
1 year 2 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, I grew up believing that God made us to Know Him, Love Him, Serve Him, in this world, so as to be happy with Him forever in the next. You say Praising, Reverencing and Serving Him are #1 Something to do with First Principles and Foundations, whatever that is.. I imagine in the Three Step Swish of the Trinitarian Love Dance it all leads to Love, fulfilling Divine Intent. And that's the whole enchilada, yes? You said other puzzling comment, but allow me to address just one. You said we shouldn't want health more than illness. Then why didn't Jesus say to the sick people He cured, "You shouldn't want to be healthy, Stay sick!" And why would Jesus say, "It is the sick, not the healthy who need a physician." If sickness and health are the same, why have doctors, why use medicines? Strange teaching, Mr. Rydberg.
William Rydberg
1 year 2 months ago
Mr Snowden, There is much I could say about St Ignatius' first principle and foundation. But out of respect, I am without comment-aware of the presence of Jesuit Fathers of great accomplishment and eloquence within the North American Society of Jesus. in Christ,
Bruce Snowden
1 year 2 months ago
I need to apologize to all Jesuits for not recognizing immediately their heartfelt linkage to the terms, "First Principles" and "Foundations" a prime legacy from their Founding Father, St. Ignatius of Loyola. I greatly respect and admire all Jesuits for their attachment to Jesus leading to holiness, and for their courage in searching the hidden mysteries of God through study and scholarship, syphoning truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from Revelation towards better understanding. This charism is also reflected in their study of the world around us, uncovering cogency in the mysteries of God-directed natural truth hidden within matter, out of rocks as did the great Jesuit priest Chardin. Thank you for all the indispensable wisdom you show. I deeply appreciate you all!

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A 14-year-old boy receives medical treatment at Suez Canal University hospital in Ismailia, Egypt, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, after he was in injured during an attack on a mosque (AP Photo/Amr Nabil).
The pope described the attack as a “wanton act of brutality directed at innocent civilians gathered in prayer.”
Gerard O’ConnellNovember 24, 2017
“The Senate proposal is fundamentally flawed as written and requires amendment,” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane in a Nov. 22 letter to senators.
Pope Francis greets people at the “Regional Hub,” a government-run processing center for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, in Bologna, Italy, Oct. 1. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)
Although he named no countries, Vatican observers believe he is referring especially to political leaders in several western and eastern European countries.
Gerard O’ConnellNovember 24, 2017
For Thanksgiving, we give you an inside look into what Jesuit basketball teams to watch out for this season.
Olga SeguraNovember 24, 2017