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.
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.”