On Human Suffering

Much of what we do in this world is meant to eradicate our own suffering. All humans are like trapped and wounded animals at some point, even those who’ve cultivated an image of polish and success or fortitude. It’s impossible to avoid pain. Physical, emotional, mental: one of these, maybe all of these, will eventually find us.

While some are content to wallow in it alone, far too many will cause others pain in order to avoid their own. They’ll step on others, steal from them, bear false witness against them, and in more extreme cases, take others’ lives. They do this out of primitive or base self-preservation, or perhaps because of deep envy that doesn’t allow for the empathetic understanding that the beautiful person or the wealthy person actually feels very deep pain, too.

I began thinking of this last week when I was suffering. I was suffering from a lack of sleep and a church-wide Daniel fast I was taking part in. I engaged in the fast willingly (brought on my own pain, in other words); it just happens that my digestion can’t handle a vegan diet. My digestion can’t handle much of anything, I’ve learned throughout my life. By the end of the fast, my whole body was on fire with inflammation, achy joints, and intestinal distress. And I was exhausted from chronic lifelong insomnia and digestive pain, and begging God to take it away, just as I’d been doing from childhood. God has not done this. Instead, he’s sustained me through it and given my insight into human suffering. I know my suffering isn’t as bad as so many others’, and in fact, it’s the way I’ve lived my life and is, therefore, the only normal I know. I hate to admit that I’m suffering at all, but that is a stupid egotistical stance that causes stinginess toward my fellow humans. More on that in a minute.

In my determination to take control back from where I’d let my mind slip, I put suffering out of my head and took care of business. Some people binge eat for comfort; I forget to eat in my quest to accomplish, accomplish, accomplish! That’s my crack. And then this morning, I found myself watching a speech by a man with Down syndrome, John Franklin Stephens, who spoke of how much he valued his life. To be honest, I started crying. And my “deep thoughts” of human suffering worked their way to the fore again. They had to be thought through instead of avoided in the same way that suffering itself can’t be avoided.

Stephens’ speech was given to the United Nations, and it was an appeal to consider people like him as humans and not disorders. Consequently, the video has been making its rounds through the pro-life internet. See, his message is very relevant to the issue of abortion because abortion is ultimately a response to human suffering. Women who have abortions want to avoid their own suffering, and they want to avoid giving birth to babies who suffer. They are very much like a trapped and wounded and animal, who would chew their own foot off and make-believe this will ease their pain — because at the moment of their pregnancy diagnosis they don’t see their baby as a baby, but a condition. And if the baby has its own condition, that’s what they see. They see suffering and not humanity, and their primary goal is to end this suffering by any means possible.

As a Christian, what is, or what should my response to suffering be? This is perhaps the most crucial of all questions. While I was going through that Daniel fast and suffering from pain and chronic insomnia, we had prayer meetings at church, in which the pastor specifically prayed over people with insomnia (he doesn’t know me at all, so he had no idea then and still doesn’t know this is my biggest struggle). My insomnia didn’t abate, but others’ did, and it was hard — I mean, really hard to listen to their testimonies without feeling that God had forgotten about me. There are many Protestant sects that instill in their congregants the idea that if God doesn’t heal them, it’s because their faith is lacking. This might be unwitting, as in, not the actual doctrine, but to people who are suffering, listening to others talk about their miraculous faith healings is a thorny rose to cling to that is like the dog chewing off its own wounded foot. Focusing on having enough faith for our pain to disappear doesn’t help us through it. Catholicism doesn’t skirt the issue of suffering, and this is possibly why I find it attractive.* This is taken from The Divine Mercy, where there is also a link to the full apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II on human suffering, which this summarizes:

The Pope said that there are two basic attitudes that we should have toward human suffering. We should do what good we can for the suffering, and we should try to do what good we can with our own sufferings.

First, we should try to relieve the sufferings of others (and our own) as much as possible, with compassionate care. The Pope recalls for us the importance of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in this regard. But where our own crosses cannot be taken away, we can still offer them up, in union with the Cross of Jesus, for the good of others. United with His Cross, in the Holy Spirit, our sufferings can thereby become a source of blessings and graces for the Church and the world. The chronically ill and suffering are therefore not just to be objects of our pity: they have an important vocation in the Church.

That last part is very important: Those who are suffering have an important vocation in the church. But first we have to acknowledge suffering for what it is: an inevitable part of being human. Once we’re able to work through our own suffering — not avoid it or smother it with pleasure or feigned strength — we’ll be better equipped to allieve the suffering of others, even those we hardly recognize as suffering, such as women who are ready to abort their own offspring. Earlier, I said that my disavowal of my own suffering causes me to be stingy towards others. This is because it forces me to quantify how much suffering should actually be considered valid, rather than just accept that it is all valid. All humans are in need of compassion and help, including me. All humans are in need of the divine model of suffering, Jesus, to walk with them through their pain.

*It seems to fit with how hard it is to become Catholic in the first place. If frustration with the moving goal posts of confirmation is a type of suffering, the Catholic church sure knows how to dole it out. đŸ™‚



  1. Anti-suffering is materialism, the idolization od the physical world. The recent interest in singularity and the simulated universe is just new packaging on old ideas that have never worked.

  2. >Catholicism doesn’t skirt the issue of suffering, and this is possibly why I find it attractive.

    For me, a church’s (or anything, really) orientation toward suffering is a good indication if its orientation toward truth.

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