After several years of rigorously defending and promoting the dignity and sanctity of all human life, it has been my observation that one of the supporting pillars of the culture of death (those kneejerk proponents of abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, cloning/ESCR) is a desire to avoid or alleviate human suffering at all cost. A woman with an unwanted pregnancy doesn’t want the “burden” of a child; sick people want cures for what ails them or they want to be put out of their misery altogether; what good is imperfection, anyway? We see suffering, more than evil, as the worst thing there is, so much so that we will commit evil acts in an attempt to avoid it, often under the pretext of mercy and compassion.
But a culture that expects life to be lived to its fullness must be able to embrace and make peace with—even find joy in—the normalcy of human suffering.
A few years ago, this expressed sentiment prompted a fellow blogger to ask: why?
I have to admit, she had me stumped. Though I had come up with the connection between the culture of death and society’s disdain for suffering, I couldn’t exactly explain why the two were so connected. Then, nearly two years later, I came across a section in Fr. Jacques Philippe’s book Interior Freedom entitled “Refusing to Suffer Means Refusing to Live”:
Suffering should be remedied whenever possible, but it is a part of life, and attempting to get rid of it completely means suppressing life, refusing to live, and ultimately rejecting the beauty and goodness that life can bring us.
Why does hatred of suffering lead to decreased respect for human life? Because refusing to suffer is refusing the totality of living. It is a rejection of life itself.
If anything is certain in this life it is that we all will, at some point, experience suffering. Accidents will happen; people will let us down; our bodies will deteriorate; our loved ones will fade. Suffering is part of human existence and we should reduce or ease it where we can, but eliminating it completely is not within our power. In fact, very often the more we reject and try to avoid suffering, the more we encounter it; as our ability to forebear any difficulty becomes decreased, the smaller and more insignificant trials begin to seem huge and intolerable.
When I was 17 and the doctors told me that I would never walk again, I knew I had two choices. I could wallow in self-pity and sit around moping about my fate and refusing to face life in a wheelchair. Or I could accept the diagnosis, get out of bed, and confront the challenges that come with a disability head on.
I’m not going to lie. The past thirteen years have not been easy.
But that doesn’t mean they have been “too hard” to take, or that joy has eluded me. I’m still a human being, I’m still alive, and my life still has meaning and infinite value despite my challenges and limitations. What’s more, experiencing adversity has provided me with an elite (and extensive) education in the practical living-out of those valuable virtues: humility, patience, courage, and perseverance.
A life without suffering or conflict is one of heaven, not earth. On earth, even Jesus, the God-man, suffered. So did his beloved mother.
In another book, In the School of the Holy Spirit, Fr. Philippe posits that what often prevents us from becoming saints is the difficulty we have in fully accepting everything that happens to us. Though he does not will suffering, which is a consequence of Original Sin, God does, much to our bewilderment, allow it and he invites us to consent to it, not in a sense of passive resignation, but in the trusting, total abandonment that “for those who love God, everything works together for good” (Rom 8:28).
God’s ways are not our ways; he created us and alone knows what is best for us. He is infinitely good and eternally seeks our well-being, so we can be sure that whatever he allows to befall us is never purposeless, but ultimately for our benefit and the good of others.
The Culture of Death is rooted in an inability to meaningfully connect with suffering. Trained by the popular culture to believe that pleasure alone translates into “living life to the fullest,” we try to avoid pain rather than move through it, which means we can never triumph over it or transcend it.
We think that by pushing all that is imperfect and difficult out of our sights, we are showing the tenderness of our hearts, when all we are really betraying in our fear, and how it owns us.
But we needn’t be owned. Let us trust in Christ who tells us, “do not be afraid, little flock (Lk 12:32). Take up your cross and follow me. For my yoke is easy and my burden light (Mt 11:30).” Remember, ours is not a God who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way (Heb 4:15), who gave himself up unto death for us so that we would not have to suffer alone.
It is not fleeing from suffering that heals us, but our willingness to accept it, grow and mature through it, and find meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.
“[T]he greatest lesson on human dignity always remains the cross of Christ, our salvation has its origins not in what the Son of God did but in [H]is suffering, and whoever does not know how to suffer does not know how to live” –Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Problem of Threats to Human Life.”
A version of this article was originally published at Patheos.com.