Sobbing and gasping, Tom (not his real name) sat up in bed, his gaunt frame hunched forward, struggling to breathe. His scarecrow-thin arms clutched a pillow to his skeletal rib cage as he groaned with the effort of drawing air into his emaciated frame. His blue lips pursed as his short shallow breaths puffed out individual words: “Please… take… me… out… of… this… misery… chaplain… I…can’t… take it… anymore”.
What could I say to this worn-out 80-year-old with end stage Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)? I was a new chaplain and felt I had little to offer this desperate man drowning in his own secretions and clutching at the straw of death. This was more than 20 years ago, and the image of Tom’s plea to end his life is still with me. It raises for me the question asked by every human being since we first shook our opposable thumbs at the heavens while standing at a grave site: Why do we suffer?
Asking this question is often more about the function and purpose of suffering. Traditional Christianity would say that suffering came into this world through the original fall, when Adam and Eve took bad advice from a snake and went off their divinely directed diet to eat bad fruit.
Others add that the purpose of suffering is to create a space for its opposite: joy. “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain,” writes Kahil Gibran (The Prophet, 1923). Elsewhere, he explains that, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
John Bradshaw complains that God seems to have set up a world where we only learn through suffering. He jokes that if he were God he would have made eating chocolate cake and ice cream the path to self-awareness and enlightenment. Yet we all know that suffering doesn’t automatically lead to wisdom. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh points out, “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught wisdom, all the world would be wise since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable” (Gift from the Sea, 1955).
There are actually only two things that can lead us out of our usual ego-centered preoccupation with ourselves and our own comfort: great love and great suffering. Real love helps us take a wider view to put the needs of another before our own. Every sleep-deprived mother or father who gets up in the middle of the night to sooth a crying child knows what it is to “die to self.” From taking the broken cookie to raising grandchildren when your child is unable due to addictions or mental health issues, the sacrifice made by parents because of their capacity to love is unlimited.
Suffering too, though it initially narrows our focus to our own pain, can, if we let it, lead us to wider perspectives marked by compassion. The word “compassion” is formed from two Latin words: “cum” (with) and “passio” (to suffer). “To suffer with” is not something we usually want to do. We enter into compassion only through the two doors of suffering or great love. Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in a South African prison carved him deeper so that he could show the world a different response to his suffering that took the path to forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation.
Closer to home, the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, Mark McDonald states, “Churches grow, especially in the context of great stress and human need, not by program but by shared suffering. This is the ministry of Christ, and it is the way of those who would follow this service and life” (The Anglican Journal, January 2016). This is not an abstract concept, as it is practically seen in the Anglican Church’s response to the issue of abuse in the residential schools. Primate Fred Hiltz, reflecting on the recent death of fellow bishop Jim Cruickshank last month, notes how Jim presided over a time of financial and emotional suffering as the church of the Central Interior of BC tried to make reparation for pain and suffering. “Jim believed that out of its contrition the church would be renewed. It would be more humble” (The Anglican Journal). Drawing goodness from suffering has always been at the heart of the Christian story.
Another aspect of the suffering question is, Why I am suffering and not someone else? World religions have many explanations for suffering. Buddhists see attachment as the root cause of unhappiness, while Hindus believe Karma is behind much of life’s pain. Christians see in Christ’s death on the cross the ultimate template for our life and the problem of suffering. Biblical scholar Richard Rohr states that good religion teaches us what to do with our pain. Pain that is not transformed will always be transmitted. He writes that “Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance” (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality). Christ’s death on the cross offered a radical alternative to the perennial human habit of responding to hurt with revenge and retaliation. Jesus refuses to pass on his pain and suffering, instead transforming it by his death into a salvific act that all who follow him were invited to copy.
I was not yet aware of all of this wisdom when, as the naive young chaplain I stood awkwardly beside Tom’s bed listening to him gasp and gurgle. I offered no words and only the morphine seemed to bring much relief. Yet I stayed with him, quietly holding his hand. At times I prayed with him, which he appreciated. Mostly I was present to his suffering, and found the strength not to run away. In the end, he was not alone with his suffering, a fact which we Christians believe changes everything. We believe in a God who is with us, Emmanuel. As followers of the Christ we are called to be with each other in our suffering. Faith tells us that will be enough.