FINDING MEANING IN SUFFERING
In life there are topical issues that will always attract our attention and commitment. One of them is suffering. People have written vastly to explain the mystery of suffering, yet we are never bored reading, listening, and reflecting on it. This is so because suffering is part and parcel of our lives. Even God in Jesus Christ suffered as we reflect today from all the readings of Palm Sunday liturgical celebration. Today’s celebration brings us to the door or entrance into the Holy Week in which we shall recall and relive the “Paschal Mystery” of Jesus Christ, that is the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Palm Sunday morning, we have had the prologue (the palms and the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the ‘play’). We have entered a week of salvation dramas. This morning we had the first act, the Narrative of the passion or suffering of Jesus Christ. On Holy Thursday evening, and on Good Friday, we shall have the second act of narrative of the institution of the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist and the passion and death of Jesus Christ on the Cross respectively. On Holy Saturday evening, at the vigil of Easter, we shall have the third act. The knot of death is untied by raising Jesus from the dead. The Resurrection is fulfilled and that will launch us into the glorious celebration of Easter on Sunday morning and beyond.
Our interest today is to talk more about suffering and how to find meaning in it. Suffering has different kinds – physical, mental/psychological, emotional and moral sufferings. There are experiences of life that could connect all or some of the kinds of suffering we have just identified. For instance – addiction of any kind, criminal activities, illnesses, diseases, poverty, hunger, heartbreak, frustration, loneliness, grief and death. Now suffering depends on our attitude and understanding of it and how we handle it in life. For some people it may be useful and for some it may be useless. The unique way to go about suffering is to give it meaning.
What is meaning? Meaning is the idea we have for creating purpose in life. It is finding reasons to live. Meaning is the goals generated and pursued in life. We can define our meaning in life generally and particularly for suffering from our accumulated experiences in life. Finally, meaning is never static, it changes according to our situations in life.
Questions on suffering: There are questions that inform our attitude towards suffering. How can we search for good in crisis moments? How can we be resilient or go beyond resilience? How do I make good use of my worst situations in life? Here are some tips for generating meaning in suffering and out of suffering:
Identity: It all begins with the question of who am I? This is a question that many of us find very difficult to answer and sometimes we end up defining ourselves based on people’s views about us. I and God are the key persons to define the “me in me” and no one else. Others may suggest politely or cruelly what they think I am but I have to finally say who I am because the unique Self that defines me is in me. So, who do I say I am? Again, identity is never completely defined based on roles or nationalities because roles and nationalities may change but I will remain who I am. The most difficult question to answer in life is that of identity. It is so because it goes with consequences. Once you begin to answer it authentically, you may go against what people outside you are holding about you. So, it is either you apply your willpower and say clearly what you have been dialoguing with interiorly or out of human respect you give in and distort the “me in me” and the “you in you.” Hence, the argument between Jesus and the Jews in John 8:51-59 and Jesus insisted on His identity as “I AM.” For us to answer the question of finding meaning in suffering we need to be sure of who we are. Who are you? A human being? Are you loving, empathic, immanent and transcendent? A child of God that was redeemed by the precious Blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:19); an agent that is capable of generating multiple meanings about suffering and life or a suffering object like an addict or what or what do you really think you are? Define yourself, please. It is either you define yourself or your life experiences will define you.
Offering our suffering: We have this expression in our spiritual life, “offer it up.” Only those who understand that we can get meaning out of suffering, believe and welcome the saying, “offer it up.” To offer up our suffering means to ask God to unite it with those of Christ. Our spiritual mentor St. Paul knew very well the issue of finding meaning in suffering, so, he says: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). We can do same!
Inner wisdom: In the face of suffering, we can find meaning by our inner strength that is informed by our inner sense of judgement called wisdom. That is the ability to judge wisely what is true or right and act accordingly. The strengths that support inner wisdom are willpower, love power, determination and above all formulation of future goals. For future goals for instance, the life of Jesus is intimately bound up with sufferings such as opposition and arguments, misunderstanding, grief and pain, shame and abandonment. But the foregoing were always linked to his resurrection. Therefore, His resurrection was His future goal that motivated Him to continue. If I have my future goals clearly defined then I can work towards achieving them as they define my needs irrespective of my life experiences. Here comes a favorite assertion by Nietzsche as quoted by Viktor Frankl: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” How come people like Nick Vujicic a man without no limbs and arms could be teaching the world on how to find meaning in life through acceptance of our human conditions?
Social integration: It is possible to get and understand meaning in a very terrible situation because we can find support from our families, friends and well-wishers. This is why we are encouraged to learn how to connect especially with the right people in life. Mere sharing our ordeals with the right person gives us the opportunity to find meaning. Sometimes they may even unknowingly reveal it to us. On the other hand, it is only when we suffer that we gain the experience to be empathetic to other people who suffer. Hence the saying, “experience is the best teacher.”
Gratitude therapy: We have this song/hymn that goes thus:
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
Sometimes we are quick to focus on our minds, issues that trouble us and they are usually few but we forget the majority that makes us happy and joyful, for example: God, the Church, ourselves, our achievements, family members and friends, our teachers and those who care for our well-being, food that support our lives and so on and so forth. Now, it is time for us to pick up our pen and papers or books (gratitude journal) and daily write a list of things which we are grateful from the previous week (s). When this is done it will reveal meaning to us, either immediately or later in life.
My belief system: It is good to allow our previous beliefs to be challenged and questioned like in this context of listening to a homily or talk, seminars or other points of learning through openness to new ideas. A question like I have an addiction, why me? Could challenge your belief system or the belief in yourself. I am sure you had never imagined nor believed that you were vulnerable and it was the grace of God that was sustaining you. Now, your experience and belief is surely different. Now you have discovered how helpless you are except for Jesus Christ on your side. For Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Murphy (1988) asserts that “The law of life is belief.” Belief here is the power of the mind to hold certain thoughts about a phenomenon. If the thoughts are positive, they result in health or wellness. On the contrary, if the thoughts are negative they result in experiences, actions, events that harm a person. Hence, Mark 9:23 “If you can believe, all things are possible to him that believe.” So, what do you believe about yourself? What do you believe about your life, and the universe? Think about it!
In conclusion, we are talking about suffering and how to find meaning in it and from it. Jesus Christ has passed through suffering and He has the experience to carry us along. Now is time to surrender and change our previous thought that says suffering in meaningless. Before we suffer alone because we claimed we can do without God and we can do all things on our own. Interestingly, now we have a model of suffering in the person of Jesus Christ and He has shown us how to create meaning out of our suffering, just the way He did. Now, we know and believe firmly that with God all things are possible, including suffering and its transforming effects. It has come and it will go, if and only if we can draw meaning from it and use the suffering experiences wisely and meaningfully.
Fr. John-Mary Atep