As we move into Holy Week and the Passion story, it is good to think about the meaning of suffering. I know, I know, no one likes to think too long or too deeply about suffering. Not only do we want to avoid suffering itself, we would rather not talk about it either. But a column in the New York Times by David Brooks, written a few years ago, might bring a fresh perspective to an understanding of suffering.
He begins by acknowledging that people prefer to talk about how to maximize happiness: “When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have.” Nothing wrong with always looking on the bright side of life.
But then he asks us to notice this phenomenon: “When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”
And that is perhaps the key to understanding suffering in a salutary way—it is the experience in life, not always pleasant, that gives shape to our character and fiber and spiritual growth. Suffering that is endured because of the pain of illness or injury may not be all that helpful in shaping our life or our outlook on life. But suffering that is endured on behalf of the well-being of others, or in the pursuit of justice, or in service to the planet—that kind of self-giving, self-emptying suffering deepens our faith, and makes us stronger people. And sometimes, even suffering that is inflicted without our choice can, if embraced, open us up to greater things. Brooks mentions how polio made Franklin Roosevelt a more empathetic person, and how “social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.”
The kind of suffering that Brooks is referring to is the kind that draws us out of ourselves, out of our insulated lives, and into the broader life of the world, and into the lives of others around us in our own community. It is messy. It is sometimes painful and almost always uncomfortable. And it is necessary if we want to become more fully human while becoming more Christ-like.
An appropriate prayer for this week, written by Michael Leunig, says, “That which is Christ-like within us shall be crucified. It shall suffer and be broken. And that which is Christ-like within us shall rise up. It shall love