The Intimidation of Suffering

I am currently taking an ENDOW class at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The class is on Salvifici Doloris, or “On the Meaning of Christian Suffering”.

** Pause here to plug ENDOW in a big way. Every parish, or at least diocese, should have it —***

Last Tuesday was our first class, and the second is tonight. It’s such a wonderful experience, to be with other Catholic women pouring over Scripture and Church teaching to help understand and illuminate our experiences and sufferings. As women, we experience suffering in ways that men do not and can’t understand. I think it’s truly important to come together with other women to think and talk about this.

In the first class we began reading the document Salvifici Doloris written by Pope John Paul II. In paragraph 4 of the document, the Holy Father says:

“Human suffering evokes compassion, it also evokes respect, and in its own way, it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery.”

This phrase has stuck in my brain all week; “the intimidation of suffering”. What does that mean? The more I’ve asked God about this, and thought about it this week, I think it means a few things.

1. Suffering intimidates those who suffer. Well…how astute, you might say. Of course suffering intimidates those who suffer. But how? It intimidates you by making you believe that you cannot handle or deal with it. Suffering is like a gas that, once released, fills you up and immobilizes you. When a person is in the midst of great suffering, they often speak of feeling paralyzed by their feelings of anger, fear, sadness, that are associated with the suffering.

What causes the suffering is, for the most part, irrelevant. Each person is different. For one person, it may be an incurable or debilitating illness. For another, it may be the death or alienation of a loved one. For still others, it can be feelings of social isolation or rejection. What might seem like “no big deal” to some, can often be the very thing that leaves a person feeling full to the brim of suffering.

I learned this lesson firsthand when I miscarried. While others, who meant well, told me it was not a big deal, or that I should cheer up because “you can always have another baby” or “you can try again soon”, I often felt so overwhelmed by inadequacy and suffering that I could barely summon the strength to get out of bed.

Suffering intimidates us by feeding us the lie that we cannot overcome it.

2. Suffering intimidates the people who witness it in others. This is why, as my mother used to say, “You learn who your friends really are when you’re lying in a hospital ward.” Though I was too young to remember, my grandmother has told me many stories about so-called “friends” of my mother’s who dropped off the face of the earth once she became ill and was hospitalized. Only a handful of her friends remained faithful to her in the midst of her suffering.Even my father was unable to bear the sight of her suffering, and for the most part, stayed away.

And her story is not unique in this regard. When my grandmother’s sister moved in with us after a stroke paralyzed her, many of her friends no longer called or came to visit her. This once vibrant woman who had many friends and connections in the community, spent most of the remaining years of her life feeling isolated and alone.

This is the legacy of fallen humanity. Suffering entered the world through sin and death (please understand, I am not saying that all suffering is caused by an individual’s sin, but rather that understanding the presence of suffering as being caused in part from the collective sins of humanity). Those who suffer feel paralyzed by it and unable to get past it, for the most part. Those who witness the suffering of people around them, also feel paralyzed and intimidated into believing that there is “nothing they can do”.

We have fallen prey to the belief that unless you are capable of ending a person’s suffering, then you are useless to them. We’ve dismissed the power of community and individual gift of self in spending time with someone who is suffering. Often times, more than a cure or a new drug, the suffering person wants someone to be with them, to make them feel that they are still human, and still worthy of a dignified life.

When I was a small child, we drove to the hospital (about 200 miles away) every weekend so that we could be with my mother, who was living there. Of course, I was six, so I did not totally understand what was going on, only that every Saturday, I got to hold my Mommy’s hand.

Many people, myself included, cease to offer companionship or assistance to families or individuals who are suffering. On one level, we feel powerless. We are intimidated by their suffering, and our intimidation tells us to keep our distance. On another level, being around those who suffer or who are dying reminds us of the fragility of life and of our own mortality.  So we avoid being exposed to it at all costs, including the rejection of those who are suffering.

I firmly believe that the only way to overcome suffering is with love. Authentic love, which seeks only the good of the other, and which is willing to make itself uncomfortable or inconvienenced for the sake of the other. Authentic love propels us from a stance of paralyzed intimidation in the face of suffering into the position of going forward with joy, convinced of the ability of our love, which is a gift from God, to overcome all suffering and fear.

I think this is why, despite all of the suffering that Pope John Paul II lived through, including the death of his entire family by the time he was 20, World War II, Nazi Occupation of Poland, Holocaust, Stalin, etc., he was able to say:

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are Easter people and hallalujah is our song!”


2 thoughts on “The Intimidation of Suffering

  1. Thanks for sharing, and great final quote. As a new Catholic, I still don’t quite understand how to “offer up” sufferings, so I’ll look forward to your continued posts on the topic!

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