In whatever I might know about life, there are two truths that have helped me to deal with suffering. They have many times given me the courage to live.
The first truth is that life has meaning
It might not be easy to put into words, and maybe you are not fully aware of it, but you have some concept of meaning in your life, some concept that gives you a compass and purpose when you make decisions about your life.
Whether meaning is given to us, or whether we create it ourselves, it is impossible to go from one minute to the next without having a sense of meaning for whatever we do. We always have a “reason” for doing something. In more important actions, our wider ideas of meaning have more impact.
Even if you hold fast to the belief that life has no meaning (you shouldn’t, but I know it is easy to think this way when you feel depressed or resentful), you actually do give some meaning to your life.
I know, that does not seem to make any sense, but holding such a belief is a rebellion against all those who try to tell you what the meaning of life really is. You refuse to choose their meanings, and you refuse to make a definite choice for yourself. Your rebellion drives you – that is, it gives meaning to what you do and think.
Sometimes we forget that Jesus was also a rebel, although not the kind of military rebel many of His followers hoped He would be. Over and over, Jesus provoked His enemies and His followers with statements like, “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23) and “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (Matthew 21:43). It is often good to stand against what is wrong for you by being defiant, stubborn, even obnoxious. You matter, you are a child of God, and that needs to be shouted – not whispered or whined – to a world that often seems indifferent.
The second truth is that life involves suffering
Nobody gets through life without a good bit of suffering.
This means that, if life both has meaning and involves suffering, there must be some meaning to suffering. The meaning that you see in suffering does not have to be one of the classical meanings. It does not have to mean that God wants you to gain wisdom through your suffering, although people who suffer greatly also seem to be the wisest people on earth.
Consider the wisdom of St. Rose of Lima:
If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.
Suffering’s meaning can even include punishment for sins, as none of us has gotten through life without sometimes violating the very meanings we hold dear. We have been given free will out of the love of God, but with this awesome freedom comes awesome responsibility. “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age” (Matthew 13:40), said Jesus. If we reject this free will, we reject life, and as Pope John Paul II wrote, “Life, especially human life, belongs only to God: for this reason whoever attacks human life, in some way attacks God himself.”
Reason for joy and gratitude
We have reason for joy, however, because with the burden of responsibility comes freedom and dignity that are given to no one else. We also have reason to be immensely grateful for the opportunity to be forgiven for our sins, sometimes through the penance of suffering. St. Augustine said: “Trials and tribulations offer us a chance to make reparation for our past faults and sins. On such occasions the Lord comes to us like a physician to heal the wounds left by our sins. Tribulation is the divine medicine.”
Suffering does seem to have a purpose because it makes us stronger. St. Paul told the Romans: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). St. Pio of Pietrelcina knew much about suffering, and he shared some of the most inspiring insights:
I do not know what will happen to me; I only know one thing for certain, that the Lord will never fall short of His promises. “Do not fear, I will make you suffer, but I will also give you the strength to suffer,” Jesus tells me continually. “I want your soul to be purified and tried by a daily hidden martyrdom”… ”How many times,” Jesus said to me a little while ago, “would you have abandoned me, my son, if I had not crucified you.”
Suffering must fit into that concept of meaning
Ending your life puts an end to your meaning. Ending your life has no meaning in itself. Whoever you truly are, whatever you truly believe, whatever holds some meaning in your life, is violated terribly when you end it.
On the other hand, as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross put it: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Your meaning is not merely a spiritual one, divorced from the experience you have as a bodily person. The Catholic Church, the early Christian Fathers, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others insist on the unity of body and soul in each person. They are fused together in a single person, not a body “containing” a soul, but a single person who can be described partially in both ways. To destroy your body, then, is to destroy yourself.
The 16th Century anatomist and physician, Andreas Vesalius, points out that, in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ cures of persons with various afflictions,
Christ enacts a physical reality to give meaning to a spiritual one. The spiritual takes on meaning because Christ has healed the man’s body. Indeed, in this view, all of Christ’s miracles of healing suddenly give meaning to a spiritual reality we might not have otherwise considered. In his healings, he was not simply going around touching bodies, he was restoring people to God. But such a restoration becomes known and valued precisely because he did touch bodies, restoring them.
It is not simply the spiritual that gives meaning to your bodily existence, but your bodily experience through life that also gives you – you as a whole person – meaning in the spiritual realm.
You have an awesome choice
Here is your choice: Be true to who you are and live through suffering, or violate the very core of who you are by ending your suffering with death.
As the great Christian thinker C. S. Lewis said, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
If you are true to who you are, and if you live, you at least have the ability to fight the pain and continue to have meaning. And you cannot help but feel good about that.
You also have at least the tiniest ability to reach out to others for help and comfort, or to comfort yourself if there does not seem to be anyone who can help. Thinking that there is no one to help is usually a false belief you tell yourself in the short-sightedness of despair and pessimism.
Sometimes fiction can express deep truths about our lives. Consider what Sam had to say to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings:
I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something.
Be somebody. Be true to yourself. Live through suffering because, other than getting healthy and feeling better – which, as we know, does not always happen – it is the only way to find meaning.
Suffering has limits
And remember that nobody feels suffering completely. Our brains and bodies are wired to prevent us from feeling more pain than we can bear. Even a person who is tortured mercilessly eventually passes out for a while, but continues living, before recovering. Even those who weep with the most intense emotion eventually dry their tears. In those moments of relief, we have the choice to reconnect with meaning, to reconnect with our true selves.
Remember, hastening death is not a solution. In fact, it is the very opposite of a solution: it violates everything we are. People who live through suffering are heroes and live some of the most meaningful lives. They provide a shining example of hope for everyone with whom they come into contact.
Live, fill your life with meaning, and do it vigorously. That is the path to real joy.
As Mother Teresa counseled: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”