The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. Yet society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves; moreover, the individual cannot accept another's suffering unless he personally is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope. Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie. In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.
Spe Salvi 38
Reflection – In this paragraph from the encyclical, Pope Benedict hits upon a deep root of the hopelessness afflicting our times. Suffering enters every human life, no matter what. So long as we see suffering as an unmitigated evil, an intolerable burden, something to be fled from, fought off, done away with no matter what the cost, then we are set on a path of hopelessness.
Sooner or later, a suffering that cannot be fled, fought, or done away with descends upon us. Now, let us be clear-- suffering is an evil, a burden, and it is to be fled, fought, and done away with… so long as this can be done without violating the greater imperatives of charity and justice. For years (if I can wax a bit confessional) I worked hard to avoid people who caused me suffering, which is no easy thing when you live in a community like Madonna House. And it was bad for me, bad for them.
To be able to be present to people who are suffering (which, after all, causes us to suffer with them), we must, as the Pope says, have found in our own personal suffering that mysterious something else, that most mysterious presence of Christ, action of grace, purification of ego—there are a dozen ways of putting it, but it is that ‘something’ (or Someone) we encounter in the heart of suffering that makes it, if not itself good, then a conduit to goodness, to a deeper goodness than we could have attained without the suffering.
Without this discovery, this encounter, we are indeed driven to worse and worse acts of desperation as we strive to flee, fight, and do away with suffering. We will contracept, and when that fails, abort; we will kill embryos to harvest their stem cells in the vague hope that we might thereby cure some disease or other (hasn’t happened yet…), and when that doesn’t work, euthanize the sick.
We will leave our marriages when they no longer please us, or as happens more and more often today, simply refuse to make any commitment to any life that will trap us in a situation where we might have to suffer. And so on and so on.Sentimentality, this soft, seemingly caring attitude that all that matters is to eliminate suffering, leads to the gas chamber. The only way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate everything from my life that causes me suffering. And everyone. To refuse suffering is to destroy ourselves, one another, and our very humanity. It is the essential question of our time.