Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).
Recently, I moderated a discussion at Berry College on the stigmatization of mental illness and therapy. A woman passionately asserted that we should not say that mentally ill people suffer, because “‘suffering’ is a shaming label.”
She speaks for many, I suspect. Even as a psychotherapist, I seldom hear clients use the word, “suffering,” to refer to their pain and struggles. In polite conversation outside of the therapy room, we qualify any implication that we suffer from our afflictions and misfortunes by pointing out that others have it worse. “I can’t complain, and it wouldn’t do any good if I did,” we say with a chuckle.
Let me submit that our refusal to own and voice our suffering is a form of social distancing more insidious to our well-being than what we practice to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Moreover, shame over suffering protects us from nothing and makes us vulnerable to psychological and spiritual disorder. Suffering well, on the other hand, involves respecting one’s own suffering on the way to compassionate connection with Christ and neighbor.
The COVID-19 pandemic closes in our denial of suffering. Invisible and aggressive, COVID-19 covers the globe, infecting many without any vaccines or treatments. Carriers may be asymptomatic, so we never know who could infect us. The death toll climbs. In COVID-19 hellholes like New York City, many overwhelmed health care workers display early symptoms of PTSD.
Shelter-in-place and social distancing resists transmission but exacerbates the silent epidemic of loneliness that preceded COVID-19. Some businesses are overwhelmed with new demand, but most shut down for lack of it, laying off masses of workers. Law enforcement reports a dramatic uptick in domestic violence calls. The threat of economic depression looms as nobody knows when we can return to normal again.
The COVID-19 pandemic wraps itself around our denial of our own suffering like a boa constrictor. Yet, we have temporary escapes. If working at home sends me climbing several steep and slippery learning curves with little chance of being as productive as I was at the office, well, at least I have a salaried job. At least I am not an hourly worker who just got laid off.
Very true. And if social distancing makes me lonely, at least I am not dying alone with my family sitting in a car in the hospital parking lot. At least I am not the nurse in a makeshift tent clinic in Central Park who helped 34 people die in one day.
Very true. And very cold comfort. Let’s face it. If the lonely, worried, overwhelmed, and exasperated among us cannot name and claim our suffering, then we set ourselves apart from those who cannot deny it. We compartmentalize the human race into those who suffer and those who do not. Then we find ourselves not far from blaming the sufferers for their plight. We approach resenting the trouble and expense we go through for them. Soon enough, we will numb our compassion and stop caring. If we have not already.
All of us will die, whether by the COVID-19 pandemic or something else. All of us grieve countless losses throughout our lives, some of which the world reverently acknowledges like the death of a parent, much of which the world refuses to honor like marital separation, most of which the world refuses to notice like the aging person’s loss of functioning or the child of an alcoholic’s loss of childhood. So all of us suffer. But who among us suffers well?
Easter just passed. We paused to ponder the passion of Christ and his crucifixion. His resurrection means love overcomes injustice and death; yet, injustice and death march on. We celebrated Easter in defiance of injustice and death. But if we celebrated Easter in denial that we, too, suffer, as God’s Son did, we missed the point.
For Jesus Christ suffered not only for us, but with us. If we do not name and claim our own suffering, then we reject his gift as irrelevant to us. We elevate ourselves to the status of one for whom Jesus did not have to go through all that. Jesus needed do that only for those pitiful folk who suffer.
Paul passionately testified,
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead
That is the Easter desire, the heart of Christian longing. But it is a dying flower if not planted in the soil of a life lived aware and respectful of one’s own struggles, willing to accept Christ’s fellow suffering as consolation and hope. Without suffering well like that, Paul’s words sound discordant and absurd.
Compassion, too, dies on the vine unless rooted in respect for one’s own suffering. If I habitually dismiss my own suffering as trivial, how can I hold the suffering of others in my attention with respect rather than condescending pity? And what does Christ ask of us if not compassion? “Insofar as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40), he said. How can we enter into the world’s pain where he waits for us if we keep ourselves above pain?
The COVID-19 pandemic offers a context for spiritual growth through suffering well. Suffering well means respecting our own trials and finding in them common cause with Christ. Only with the humility to acknowledge our own suffering without shame can we receive grace. Only with the courage to respect our own suffering can we prepare to meet the world with a compassion that mirrors God’s mercy. Suffering well follows the pattern of Christ’s passion and resurrection.
If we consider suffering a term of shame, we should not avoid the word. We must change our attitude toward it. We cannot separate our dignity from how we suffer. To meet the suffering of those in dire straits with compassion and respect, we must put aside the mythical pain scale that our suffering presumably does not budge. No such scale exists. My suffering and the suffering of the other does, and both matter, however they differ. Both deserve reverence.
And every suffering, great and small, presents an opportunity to share in Christ’s suffering if we expect him to meet us there. After all, he is risen. Let us watch and wait with our heads held high even amid this frightening COVID-19 pandemic. He will arrive and welcome us with honor and love.
Coronavirus and Your Spiritual Life: More Than Coping
Privilege and the Compassion Deficit
Stop Distress Over Distress: Self-Respect in a World of Suffering
I Want to Know Christ
Suffering Without Shame: How the Second Beatitude Changed Me
Image, “Christ in the Wilderness,” Ivan Kramskoi, 1872, Public Domain.