To fight against evil, to right the wrongs in this world; this is what heroic stories are made of. What happens, then, to a society when suffering is understood to be the greatest of all evils? What happens when any form of suffering must be eradicated at all costs?
Suffering is king
Here in the first world society, this is exactly the scenario that we find ourselves in: suffering is the king of all evil. The fight against suffering is the battle cry of social justice warriors everywhere. What’s missing from this seemingly noble fight is a sense for what is objectively true and what constitutes actual suffering. There are many things that ‘trigger’ us, a buzzword for an external phenomenon that causes one actual, perceived, or merely recalled discomfort. You read that correctly, in order for something to be triggering it doesn’t even have to cause actual, in the moment suffering; if an event is enough to cause us to recall a past occasion of discomfort then it is deserving of the almighty ‘trigger warning’.
Please know that I am not trying to belittle situations of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or comparable situations of real, quantifiable anxiety. Please believe that I know anxiety is a real plight for some people, many of whom are close friends and family. And, at the risk of getting off track here, I do not even aim to address issues of depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental illness.
The problem here is not that people suffer; only the sentiment that suffering must be stopped.
Suffering is not a problem; it is a symptom
You see, suffering is not an injustice. It can be the symptom of an injustice, but suffering, in and of itself, is not an injustice. When people go hungry, famine is the evil. When people are bed-ridden, sickness is the evil. When people are denied justice, corruption and unjust laws are the evil. And since suffering is not actually evil, and just a symptom of a real or perceived evil, it can actually be very edifying.
If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings.
-Saint Ignatius of Loyola
God allows us to suffer . . . so that we might become holy
God does not desire that man should suffer, but man suffers nonetheless by his own hands and the hands of his brother. God does, however, desire that we be holy; that we conform ourselves to himself in all things. In order to conform ourselves more closely to Christ we must learn to accept suffering as our lot in this life. We should expect, and welcome, suffering as a means to our holiness. I recall a recent video of actor and comedian Jim Carrey wherein he states “I believe that suffering leads to salvation… In fact, it’s the only way.” Now, I am not sure of the state of Jim Carrey’s faith, but no matter the case I think he has touched on a vital truth that is fairly obvious. It is in the suffering, especially in those moments when suffering has precluded us from having any sense of control in our lives that we become most vulnerable before God.
What’s more is that we are not alone in our suffering. Jesus suffered. The saints suffered. Mary suffered. Suffering is truly the universal language of conversion. In order for conversion to happen in each and every one of us, some catalytic event must provoke that shift within us that brings about conversion. I would like to propose suffering as that event. Suffering reminds us of our fallen state. Suffering reminds us that we cannot save ourselves and that any amount of prosperity in health, material goods or otherwise, will only serve to mask the suffering or simply push it back to a latter point, but suffering cannot be avoided altogether.
Suffering teaches us how to love
“If you really want to love Jesus, first learn to suffer, because suffering teaches you to love.”
-St. Gemma Galgani
Suffering builds solidarity. The number one reason injustice persists and suffering follows is due to the negligence and complacency of our fellowman. When we witness the injustice done to another and think to ourselves “that is not my fight” then we isolate ourselves from our brothers and sisters. Our suffering may not be their suffering, but we all suffer. Whether rich or poor, black or white, male or female, the unique suffering each of us endures is both unitive and sanctifying. It is by an acknowledgement and acceptance of our suffering that we begin to love.
To truly love means to give ourselves totally and unreservedly to another. Understanding the universality of suffering demands that we accept everyone’s struggle as our own. We are our brother’s keeper. The enemy of love, especially the love to be shared in times of hardship, is pride. Pride adds a level of ego to our suffering and leads us to believe that no one could possibly suffer as we are suffering. Pride tells us that we don’t deserve our current lot of suffering. Pride encourages us to seek vindication for our suffering. Pride isolates us in our suffering.
Humility is everything
If we are serious in our quest for greater holiness, humility is everything. We must understand ourselves to be absolutely deserving of every ounce of suffering we endure. It’s all penance. Humility brings us to the point of praise and thanksgiving in our times of suffering because it acknowledges that God is the source of all good things. Not money, possessions, acceptance, or comfort, but God alone is truly good. Moreover, we, in our fallen state, are prone to seek goodness in something other than God. When we are inevitably let down in these pursuits, we suffer.
The good news? It’s all worth it. Think of suffering from this moment forward, as your path to God. Lean on the saint, lean on Mary who suffered in union with her son, and accept that if you’re suffering, you’re in good company.
For Jesus Christ I am prepared to suffer still more.
-Saint Maximilian Kolbe