Suffering happens. It would make a better bumper sticker that the other one that was popular a few years ago. Both human beings and animals experience pain, but only humans suffer. The experts say that the difference is that animals live completely in the present. They do not project their pain into the future so they do not worry about how their pain might affect them in the future. You might say that suffering happens when step outside of our current experience of pain and move into a pain filled future that may never occur. You might say suffering happens because we fight against pain rather than being present to it. We think we seek reasons for the pain, but reasons are not really what we seek. After all, if we were to be paralyzed in an accident tomorrow and the doctor came in the room to explain the medical reasons we were paralyzed most of us would find that explanation unsatisfactory as an answer to our, “Why?” I believe what we really seek is a way to make sense of our pain and suffering.
I make a distinction between pain and suffering in the following way. I use pain to mean the physical sensation of discomfort. Suffering is the emotional response to physical pain or some other event – such as separation, failure, the loss of a loved one, and so on. Somewhere along the way, we developed an expectation that we would never experience pain or suffering. That expectation was there when we were teenagers and certainly continued into our 20s. We believed we were invincible. Young people engage in enormous amounts of risk taking behavior because they believe that nothing can happen to them. That belief is not a completely bad thing. In a world that can be frightening at times, young people need to believe they are safe in order to engage in appropriate developmental tasks. Heading off to college is hard enough – it would be impossible if young folks did not believe they were going to be completely safe because of their invincibility. When something bad happens to one of these young people – a serious illness, injury, or death – we all are very shocked. We rant and rave against God, asking how a just God could “allow” this tragedy to occur – but doesn’t every thing and everyone eventually die? Are we asking the right question?
As we survive our 20s and move into our 30s and 40s, most of us encounter physical limitations (often very simple limitations) for the first time. We don’t recover from physical exercise as well as we used to, we notice some aches and pains that we didn’t have in the past, and we start to notice that we aren’t able to perform physical tasks quite as easily or efficiently as we used to. We will eventually experience injuries which are not the result of an accident but rather which seem to happen “out of the blue.” Suddenly we are confronted by our limitations, which comes as quite a shock to someone who thought themselves invincible for most of their lives! We are confronted by the first time with our own mortality. We ignore that mortality and press on.
As we move into our 50s and beyond, we will eventually experience health challenges that cause suffering. We begin to lose friends and loved ones to death, if we have not already done so earlier. There is no denying our mortality now, but many of us repress that reality and project it on to other things, people, or organizations. We struggle to cope, and at the same time recognize that some people seem to handle these events better than others. What is their secret?
I believe the first step toward dealing with suffering is recognizing that the only honest answer to the “why” question is that suffering is part and parcel of the human condition. Despite the fact that we may seem to be the only person in the world who is suffering at this moment, the reality is that, to one degree of another, masses of people are suffering. What we seek, what we need, is a way to make sense of the suffering.
Jesus Christ suffered on behalf of humanity. The usual explanation of that is that he suffered to take away our sins, but that is a uniquely Jewish assessment of the experience of Jesus. I believe he suffered at least in part to unite himself fully to the human experience. He also suffered because he loved so radically that he was able to reach out to all people, especially those who were ostracized by the culture of his time – and that culture responded to him as it has responded to prophets throughout time. Ultimately, however, his suffering had meaning because it was through his suffering that Jesus achieved unity with all of humanity. When we suffer, we ourselves join in the experience of Jesus and that same common experience of all of humanity. We enter fully into what it is to live the human experience, and we enter into the fullness of the incarnation. It is truly a sign that we are fully alive much more than it is a harbinger of death. In this is found meaning, in this is found comfort, but it is not deliverance because to be delivered from suffering would be equivalent to being rendered less than human. Who could possibly desire that?