The honest answer for most of us? “Not me.”
If you’re like me, you’d rather just say “no thanks” to suffering.
But, when we’re faced with suffering, wouldn’t it be better to figure out how to “suffer well”?
What would good suffering even look like?
Let’s be clear here. This is not a cheery subject. The fact is that suffering stinks. It’s no fun and I don’t think that anything I will say here changes that.
And, this article is not directly aimed at the question of why we suffer or how a loving God allows us to suffer or finding meaning in suffering. But some of it may help you understand suffering better.
Let’s say you’ve accepted that you’re in the middle of suffering and maybe even see some meaning in it. What’s the best way to approach your suffering?
First, let’s look at the best sufferer of all time, Jesus Christ.
Remember in the movie, “The Passion of the Christ” when Jesus joked to those centurions who were flogging him? And, when he flashed that smile at the Blessed Mother and those other women when he walked by them carrying the Cross? And, when he high fived Simon after he carried the Cross for Jesus?
You don’t remember? Neither do I because his Passion wasn’t fun at all and he was in pain and agony the whole time. He cried out and sweat blood in the Garden and he questioned his own Father about what he was going through. Jesus’ whole life was really about humiliation and suffering.
But, for some of us, when we’re faced with suffering, we think that what we need to do is put on that cheery face, joke about it, show everyone that we’re doing OK or just “move on”. What others want to say to us: “Wow, look at how great you’ve recovered from xxxx. No sadness or bitterness at all. I’m proud of you. You’ve found a new path. You are really making something out of your life.”
How about another great sufferer of our times, Saint Pope John Paul II? He was shot by an assassin’s bullet and nearly died. Then, in his later years, he had debilitating Parkinson’s disease. During this time, he also wrote perhaps one of the best essays on suffering ever, his papal encyclical, Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering).
John Paul’s suffering was on display throughout as we saw him struggle in public, lose his faculties and become a shell of the dynamic, athletic man he was at the start of his papacy.
St. Padre Pio endured the Stigmata, which meant he had the physical wounds of Jesus for many decades, bleeding every day from those wounds. He was also attacked directly by the devil in his room at night, while also facing severe opposition and censure from Church hierarchy.
I also look to the example of Mother Angelica foundress of EWTN who died in 2016 after many years of suffering. A master communicator, she was not even being able to speak the last several years of her life. She had always been honest about her suffering and told her sister nuns that she didn’t want any special measures or pain medication in her last days so she could suffer as long as possible for her Lord.
The reason I mention Jesus and these saintly people is that I think we need to look to the best sufferers for the model of how we should suffer. It’s that way in any field, isn’t it? Look to the best to learn how to train yourself.
What do I see in all these cases? They didn’t sugar coat their suffering and they seemed to “lean into it”. In other words, they accepted the suffering and displayed it to others honestly.
Certainly, they all accomplished much in their lives and maybe that’s what you’re taking away from this. “Well, I guess I need to get with it and do something great.” No, that’s not my point. The point is how to do the suffering part, not the redemption part.
You see, the world’s first reaction to suffering is to run away from it or fix it. And, if it can’t be fixed, move on or suffer with a cheerful attitude, as if you aren’t really bothered. Find some new thing that can become a distraction so that you don’t need to live with your suffering. Redeem yourself.
Suffering isn’t a science. At its core, it is mostly a spiritual experience, even if we have to confront physical or emotional pain.
Because, when you come right down to it, suffering strikes at your soul and it’s just for you. Very personal.
And, I want to say right here, that I pray that if you are faced with suffering or know someone who is, I can’t give you a pat answer. What I say here may make little difference. And, I feel so bad for you.
My comments about how I feel about you is a major point and potentially a way you can suffer better… by being compassionate and helping others with their pain. Not taking it away, but just relating, just acknowledging, just saying “I feel for you”, just being there with that other person who is suffering. Not necessarily saying “I understand” or “I know it will get better”. Just “I am sad for you and I know you’re sad.”
“Blessed are they who mourn….”. Become a good mourner. Help others mourn.
Another suggestion is that maybe not all your energy should be on what new things can make your suffering go away. New job, new relationship, new location, new challenge…
Or the proverbial “I know that God has something really good planned for you.”
This is ticklish because, in fact, God does have something really good planned for you, but it may not be anything like what you’re thinking. And, it may not be in this life here on earth.
So, your loved one may die, your marriage may not come back together, your health may not get better, you may lose everything and you may suffer for the rest of your earthly life.
And, it’s OK to be OK with that. Not loving it or being “happy” about it. Jesus wasn’t happy when he was agonizing in the Garden. He knew what he had to do and he did it.
Some of my thoughts come from a book I recently read for the third time from Peter Kreeft, “Making Sense Out of Suffering”. And, yes, there is meaning behind why we suffer. There is also some mystery to it, because we’re not God. Like I said, that’s not my main point here.
But, near the end, Peter is trying to tie up some loose ends and the question comes up something like this: “If I can accept a meaning behind suffering, so what? What am supposed to do about my suffering?”.
Peter says you just “Cry”.
That’s all, just cry?
No, after you cry to yourself and God, then you wait. Wait for God to work it out, however he will work it out. God knows you’re not happy and he knows his plan.
So, for you and me, if we’re suffering… just cry and wait.
The crying hurts, but the waiting can be even worse. And, the waiting might go for much, much longer than you thought.
The world, what Peter calls the “modern mind”, says pretty much the exact opposite. Find happiness and fix your suffering problem. At all costs. Be proactive. Have a plan. Do what’s right for you. Move on. Now.
The fact is, if you’re sad, you’re sad. You don’t need to tell everybody you’re happy and you don’t have to listen to them tell you why you need to be happy. Just cry. Move when you move.
Or, some will say to you “What do you want to do? What would you like your life to be?” There may not be any answer within your control that will make that happen. Your health may not change or your relationship may be dependent on another person who has no intention of reconciliation or doing what is necessary to change the dynamics. The plan for your life may not include the consolation or redemption you are seeking.
Keep in mind that some of the considered “solutions” to your suffering may involve sin. What I mean is that you may be asked to ignore sinful situations because confronting them would rock the boat and damage a relationship. So, the message is to shut up or come over to the sinful side to avert suffering. Another possibility is that you may think you need to end a marriage or move onto another relationship/marriage, when that goes against what the Church teaches. Or it may be that you want to dull your pain with illegal drugs or alcohol. Or maybe you feel a need to attack someone who hurt you or get back at them in some way.
If you’re sad or in pain, you may not need to proclaim it to the world to get their sympathy or make a point. But, you may want to share with those close enough that should know or possibly a person who hurt you. If it is a health situation, you can share your fears with a physician or other caregiver. Or you may want to have a priest, counselor, friend or spiritual director who can help you sort out the truth of your situation and ways to interpret what God might want you to do with your suffering.
When others offer help or advice, take it. Accept their overtures as a sign of love, which it is. Know that where love shows up, God is there. And it may be that they don’t truly understand the depths of your suffering nor the proper way to respond to it. That’s OK. In a weird way, your acceptance of their offer of love can be more nurturing for their soul than yours. And, that is a beautiful result of your suffering. Often, their help will be consoling. So, don’t reject it.
There is something to be said for “suffering in silence” and the truth is that most dramatic suffering is probably that way. Only you and God really know the depths of your soul’s suffering. But, some aspects of your suffering, such as being ignored by others, insults or damage to your reputation, may just be handled in your own heart, acknowledged between you and God, and offered to him for another soul.
This concept of offering for another soul… that’s the idea of redemptive suffering. Understand that you are working with Jesus hand in hand by suffering. Redemption comes from what Jesus did for us on the Cross but also by how we unite with him. That may not make your suffering any easier or look better to others, but it might bring a measure of meaning or interior peace.
Regret is a major kind of suffering, when you realize that the things you’ve done have been sinful and/or they have hurt others. Seeing others close to you that seem to have given up on God or are struggling spiritually to lead a virtuous life will rack your soul. You can feel this regret or sense of responsibility. You should pray, ask forgiveness, go to Confession and in some cases, talk to others at the risk of offending them. The risk of them being upset with you versus the risk to their souls must be your main concern. Don’t skirt your responsibility to avoid more suffering.
If you really believe in your God, you do have a tremendous advantage. I say this because there will be an underlying hope that is only between you and God. That hope is that you’ve stayed close to him through all your suffering and he will respond by taking you to heaven with him.
That, my friends, is the ultimate prize, the reason for hope and the assurance that your suffering is “good”. When people talk of “joy” in suffering, this is really what it’s about. It’s an interior joy that may not look like much to others, but it’s everything to you.
So, suffering can be good and there can be joy.
The question still remains: Is it possible to be a “good sufferer”?
Really, I don’t know.
I think it’s very possible to ignore suffering, sugar coat it, run away from it or try to control it. I think many of us would like to lessen suffering or make it go away.
And, maybe we shouldn’t.
Is crying and waiting the way to “suffer well”? Maybe not.
But, it may be the best we can do.