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The Mystery of Suffering: How Should I Respond?

In the past two weeks Great Britain has been privy to the devastating mental and physical suffering endured by  Tony Nicklinson, 58, who had unsuccessfully sought permission from the High Court in England to end his life with the help of a Doctor. He wanted to end his ‘dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable’ life after he was left paralysed below the neck following a stroke seven years ago.  Mr. Nicklinson wept uncontrollably after the judgment and said it meant his anguish would continue.  It has haunted me and remains at the forefront of my thoughts.

His experience has left me thinking about what life has in store for me and how I would cope if I were faced with a disability such as his. This kind of life story is one which will make us all think.

Never in human history has suffering been more readily relieved than today. And yet, paradoxically, we have never been more afraid of suffering.

Our forebears would find this very odd. For them, horrendous suffering was ubiquitous, the bane of rich and poor alike. For example, before anesthesia, the agony of surgery may have killed more patients than surgical procedures helped. As Thomas Dormandy put it in his splendid medical history, The Worst of EvilsThe Fight Against Pain, “the searing pain of knife and saw” almost always caused patients to fall “into a state of shock on the operating table . . . Speed was essential. Prolonged pain not only hurt. It also killed.” No wonder John Adams, after witnessing the searing agony of his daughter’s one-and-a-half hour mastectomy, said he felt “as if he were living in the Book of Job.”

Pain was an integral part of life: If a man suffered appendicitis, he died in agony. If a man contracted bone cancer, he died in agony. If a man became infected with tuberculosis, he died in agony. Then there were the non-terminal illnesses and injuries like gout, carbuncles, migraines, arthritis, and broken limbs. Suffering was the hard price one paid for being alive.

Happily, those bad old days are mostly long gone, at least in the developed world. Thanks to tremendous breakthroughs in modern medicine, suffering has been pushed largely into the shadows. Surgeries no longer kill from the pain. Hospice and palliative care offer tremendous relief for even the most painful chronic and terminal diseases. The problem today isn’t primarily one of preventing agony, but rather, our sometimes inadequate delivery of efficacious and timely palliation. (Quoted from First Things)

Suffering surrounds us. Mental and physical illness, poverty and starvation, wars and violence of all kinds overwhelm individuals, communities, entire nations. We ourselves experience suffering. It might be broken relationships and alienated families, accidents and disease, failed dreams or boring jobs, in dying and death. How many people suffer from addictions, abuse and other forms of violence! Suffering is a Mystery. It cannot be explained outright because each individual case of suffering is unique to the sufferer. These responses are as equally unique to person going through the suffering. Although we humans often try to escape suffering, the truth is that suffering is an important part of life.

In times of crisis, we have to intentionally exercise our faith, purposely and courageously reminding ourselves that God’s ultimate purpose is to bring each person into a deeper and deeper communion with Himself. This communion begins and grows here on earth, but it reaches its fulfillment only in Heaven. The battles, struggles, sorrows, and often horrible sufferings we face on our earthly pilgrimage are inescapable in a fallen world; but God, far from being absent in the midst of them, has transformed them into channels of grace, gymnasiums of virtue, and bridges to greater wisdom, mercy, and spiritual maturity.


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  1. Beautifully said.

    Reply

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