Meaningful Suffering

A personal friend lamented this week over her sister’s death in a nursing home. She was not able to visit and felt deeply saddened that her sister died alone, and now the sister suffers from grief and guilt for not having been there. In this new normal of the Coronavirus, I believe we will hear many stories like this one.

It’s Good Friday, and while remembering the suffering of Jesus on the cross, I asked myself the question, “Why is suffering necessary?” What is the meaning of suffering? Suffering is bad enough, but when you have unnecessary or meaningless suffering, it is even more distressing.  I was asked to do a grief support workshop in the hills of Valparaiso Chile, where a young couple grieved the loss of their infant daughter. When the daughter got sick, the parents took her to the clinic downtown. While waiting in the reception area for hours, the hospital staff told them that there was no bed available. She died in the waiting room. A nurse later revealed to them that, in fact, there was an ICU bed available, but the hospital was saving it for a paying customer. The parents were outraged. They were stung by the injustice of their loss. Their daughter didn’t have to die.

            It is more than enough to suffer a loss of a loved one, but for that loved one to have died unnecessarily adds to the pain and the outrage. We are in the beginning phase of a global pandemic, and in many ways, it will bring out the best in us, the heroic in us, but also it will reveal the darkness of underlying injustices. We already see the best of us in the healthcare workers, nurses, doctors, aides, social workers, chaplains, patient reps, respiratory therapists, cleaning staff, all of whom risk their health and perhaps their lives to care for the sick. They are like the heroic fireman or soldiers who run toward danger when others run away.

We will also see the darkness of disparities come to light like never before. We will see it here and around the world. When there is a shortage of masks and respirators, who gets them? Who gets treated? Who will be left behind? Who gets tested? Who is turned away? We will see disparities in the economic impact of the coronavirus. Who are the ones who are most likely to get sick and die? Are they not the ones who serve the public in restaurants, hotels, hospitals, the police, the firefighters, the bus drivers, the Uber drivers, the cleaning lady at the nursing home, yes, all those who can’t work from a computer in the safety of their home.

We will see disparities in who gets ill, who recover, and who die? And given the fact that there are still millions of people without access to healthcare, who will get treated? And who will not go to the hospital, but instead stay at home and hope for the best because they can’t afford a hospital bill? People will die because of these underlying disparities, so we have to add the words “unnecessary,” “unjust,” “meaningless,” “un-deserved,” to the word suffering.

           Following the earthquake in Haiti, disparities revealed the cause of many unnecessary and meaningless deaths. A new hospital in the Turgeau neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, dissolved into a pancaked stack of concrete floor slabs. As family members search for loved ones in the ruins of the collapsed hospital, they could look across the street and see a gleaming aluminum-and-glass skyscraper that escaped almost unscathed. Digicel’s headquarters, the tallest building in Haiti, completed a little more than a year before a powerful 7.0-magnitude earthquake left much of this city in ruins. A First World tower in a Third World city, it was designed using building codes to endure 7.2 shock waves or higher. It did. In Haiti, there seem to be huge differences in the construction of buildings that follow strict building codes and those that skimp or ignore the codes. What does that have to do with suffering?

            If I were a family member of a patient hospitalized in that Turgeau hospital, and I showed up after the earthquake desperately searching for my loved one inside, I probably would be in such a state of shock and desperation that I wouldn’t think about how the hospital had been built. But, as the days go on, and I continue to dig through the rubble looking for my loved ones, I would not fail to notice that across the street, a tall aluminum and glass building stood erect and undamaged. Then my anger would begin to surge, and I would stop asking, “God, why me?” and start asking, “Who built this hospital?” and “Who is responsible for the shabby construction that killed my loved one?” I would then put my grief on hold and substitute it for anger and rage at those who built the hospital.

There are many kinds of suffering. There’s the voluntary suffering of young men and women who go off to war to defend their nation; many come back wounded and face a life of pain and suffering. There’s the voluntary suffering of a mother in childbirth. There’s the suffering of elective surgery to improve the look of your body or face. And there is the heroic suffering of healthcare workers who risk their lives to care for the sick.

Then there’s involuntary suffering. Shingles, Cancer, AIDS, COVID-19,  Diabetes, back pain, migraine headaches, seizures, and injuries from car accidents, falls, and violence. Nobody I know volunteers for this kind of suffering.

The suffering of Jesus on the cross, however, was both voluntary suffering and meaningful suffering. Jesus surrendered himself like a sacrificial lamb. He understood that his suffering was necessary for him to fulfill his life’s mission and purpose.

The gospel writer John contends that the suffering that Jesus experienced was a fulfillment of his mission; that Jesus believed he was destined to suffer and die. John tries to answer the question, “Why did Jesus die?”

In my humble opinion, I think I know why John made such an effort. When a meaningless death of a loved one occurs, the family almost always asks the question, “Why?”  And I always say, in our bereavement support training workshops, “Whenever a loved one asks the question “why?” we are suddenly in spiritual territory. If a loved one dies in an auto accident because a drunk driver ran a red light, and the family asks, “why?” they are not asking for a medical explanation of the cause of death. They are asking the spiritual question, “What can be the meaning of this senseless death?”  When a loved one dies in a nursing home where the coronavirus killed many residents and staff, and the family asks, “Why?” it is because the death seems to be so meaningless.

 John is saying, and Christians believe, that Jesus’s suffering and death were not only meaningful, but it was part of God’s plan. It was necessary. Jesus died for a reason. Jesus surrendered to death, in the same way, the mystics surrender to the dark night of the soul, while looking for the morning when light dawns and the one who suffered is transformed.

If the coronavirus continues to spread like wildfire to continents and nations, we may be witnessing a global “dark night of the soul.” We can anticipate a time of suffering and grief that we have not seen in our lifetimes. It will bring out the best and heroic in many of us as we respond with compassion and help, while it will bring out the worst in many of us as we turn our backs on those who suffer. This is a time when we learn who we are in the most profound depths of our soul. We are challenged to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we are reminded that there is no greater love than to give one’s life for another. We are also challenged to learn what is the meaning of this coming dark night of suffering. The worst suffering of all is to believe that your pain is meaningless. The hope is that as we journey through this suffering together, the walls that separate us (prejudice, hate, privilege, dogma, institutionalized injustice, egotism, and collective narcissism) will crumble, and a new humanity will emerge, characterized by love mobilized for compassion and justice. That is the hope that gives meaning to suffering.