Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The correct view of suffering

Many people are confused, which is understandable, but worse, have misleading and awful beliefs, about the role of suffering in life. The Catholic Church and others who observe Lent are about to enter into that solemn part of the liturgical year where the suffering of Jesus Christ, before his glorious resurrection is celebrated at Easter, is remembered and contemplated. So to help those who observe Lent and to also help those who do not understand suffering, I have thought of an analogy to help.

The problem with suffering is as usual the problem of bipolar extremes in human thinking. Humans want to avoid suffering and are hurt and angry when they experience it. As a society humans have tried to isolate suffering as a phenomenon, rather than understand that it is a natural outcome of life itself that has limitations. Suffering results from curtailment of something desirable, and life has boundaries, such as death, illness, estrangement and deprivation. Some people encounter those boundaries more often than others, but some suffering is inevitable, even if it is the suffering of a person of good fortune for those who lack and suffer themselves. At some point everyone suffers at the death of a relative, a friend, a mentor or someone you admired for leadership. For example, many people genuinely suffered when Princess Diana was killed, even though most never got to meet and to know her. Yet time heals all wounds and years later it is difficult to summon up a full remembrance of the pang of suffering felt during those days. That is good because that is human survival trait that allows people to not be overwhelmed by despair. So when one encounters suffering one must shun the one extreme which is to think that something was not “properly managed” because “suffering happened,” like it is a phenomenon separate from life itself.

The bipolar mentality opposite extreme of avoiding or isolating suffering is to glorify it as something that has “merit,” and that some sort of “spiritual” game or “point system” is at play. That is as deadly a mistake as the other extreme. Suffering in and of itself has absolutely no value because it is not an “entity” or “quantity,” like the number of times a basketball player practices his or her shots from the line. Some people are confused because the Catholic Church and certain other faiths recognize and honor the redemptive power of suffering. That is an entirely different matter, and it pains me unimaginably that people have warped Catholic doctrine into a depressive and sometimes monstrous view of suffering as an accumulative “benefit.” These people inflict suffering on themselves and worse on other people so they can “earn” some imaginary benefit from suffering. This is wrong and a grave and mortal sin and offense against God himself. Here is my analogy to help to understand that.

We all know that trees are cut down, harvested, and processed to make paper. Some paper becomes permanent, where it is put into books that are kept, for example, or wall paper put into homes, or permanent paper products such as financial files. But much paper is used once and then discarded, such as product packaging, newspapers, junk mail, sanitary and cleansing products, etc. In communities where recycling exists, paper is separated from the garbage and is sent to a recycling plant. When prices are high townships can even make money off of the sale of discarded paper to the recycling plants. When prices are low it is just a matter of avoiding adding more discard to the landfills and junkyards, where it is better to recycle almost by giving it away to the recyclers rather than dump it.

Suffering is like discarded paper.

Like discarded paper, suffering is an inevitable outcome of human living. If people did not eat they would not buy a package of food that comes in a disposable paper box. If people did not read they would not buy a magazine or newspaper that sooner or later is discarded. If people did not communicate or have ideas, they would not need paper on which to print their thoughts, their literature, or their work activities, some papers of which will be discarded even as soon as the end of the day. Suffering is like the discarded food packages, the discarded newspaper or magazines, or the discarded hand written or computer printed paperwork.

If suffering was a “good” thing, a “quantity” to “promote” and to “earn,” say nothing of inflict on others for “their own good,” why not cut down trees and send them straight to the recycling plant, before even making the tree into wood or paper in the first place? That way one can obtain an entire “tree” load of suffering, by cutting down the living tree and sending the whole thing straight to the recycler, rather than make products for good living from it, and then recycling the small percentage of scrap?

People who both “avoid” suffering and those who inflict it on themselves and others are like people who think like that, who chop down a living tree and just send it straight to the recycler.

I hope that this makes it clear, so you can better understand God’s expectations, and how he will judge each person in their error and sin.