Anne Marie Lee, from her experience of working with deprived people, stresses the importance for each of us of the value we attach to human suffering.
As we journey through life together we have many things in common, one of which is suffering. Suffering is something I am acutely aware of in myself and in the people I meet daily through my work. Suffering is subjective and therefore difficult to measure, so many factors need to be taken into account. For me it is the pain through which I grow and through which I receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Suffering is as old as life itself.
Imagine for a moment the thoughts that must have gone through Mary’s mind as she walked from her home to that of Elizabeth. She was about fifteen years old, engaged to be married and pregnant. She had been told that the child she was carrying was the Son of God. Who would believe such a story? How would she tell her parents? What would they say? Would Joseph understand or would he cast her aside? Think of the anxiety she must have suffered on that journey to Elizabeth. Mary suffered greatly all her life, but we are told she pondered things in her heart, she reflected.
Suffering is a common denominator, it brings people together. I facilitated a women’s group in the north inner city of Dublin some years ago. These women led very hard lives and were among the most socially deprived in our society; many had hearts of gold and were solid in their loyalty to each other. They didn’t need sympathy or pity, but they were glad of support. We invited two members of Families Anonymous to speak at one of our weekly meetings. They were asked to talk about their experiences of having a child on drugs.
The two guest speakers arrived from Mount Merrion [a wealthy suburb on the south side] beautifully dressed and with accents to match. My heart sank because I knew this group of women, and these two visitors just couldn’t bridge the social divide separating them. The inner city women were tough, lacking in education and in the social graces. They eyed the two speakers up and down and then looked at each other. I could feel the tension rising. The visitors began to speak, sharing from their well of excruciating pain – a pain that was common to all. Slowly the social gap began to close and the hostility melted; they understood each other. This group of women no longer saw clothes, accent, privilege versus deprivation. They only saw the pain and suffering of women who had lost a son or daughter to drug addiction. Pain and suffering allowed them to reach across the social barriers to each other as equals. The experience was an example for me of how God’s ways differ from ours.
To go back in time
What if Mary had said no? Mary’s willing response to be the mother of the Saviour and her consistent journey with Jesus from his birth to his crucifixion and resurrection was her contribution to setting us free – free that each of us might choose to carry out God’s mission and to cheerfully bear the suffering that goes with it. She didn’t know or understand why she had to suffer anymore than we do. She just loved God and got on with it. She trusted completely in him and he supported her in all situations.
‘A sign on a church notice board said, “when life hands you a lemon, turn it into lemonade.” This is what a Christian does every day with life’s problems and dilemmas – he takes the lemons and turns them into lemonade. The pressures of life serve only to squeeze the joy out for him, for he has learned not just to bear problems but to use them.’ (Every Day With Jesus: a biography of Selwyn Hughes by John Peters).
I don’t believe suffering is sent by God. Does God say ‘I will send cancer to you, your husband will leave you, your child will be born handicapped, or I’ll smash you up in a car crash?’ No, he doesn’t inflict suffering on us. He loves us too much. He walks with us and wishes he could bear our burden for us. In the final analysis it has to be said that suffering is a mystery. The question we must ask is, are we really suffering or simply feeling sorry for ourselves?
Attitude and response
Our attitude to suffering is terribly important. Rabbi Harold Kushner talks about our reaction to life’s crises. He says, ‘The facts of life and death are neutral. We, by our responses, give suffering either a positive or a negative meaning. Illnesses, accidents, human tragedies kill people. But they do not necessarily kill life or faith.’
The death and suffering of someone close to us can make us bitter, jealous, against religion and incapable of happiness. On the other hand suffering and death in someone we love can bring us to explore the limits of our capacity for strength and love and cheerfullness. It can lead us to discover sources of consolation we never knew before.
Some people carry life’s burdens lightly. I once worked with a family where the mother was deaf and had to lipread what was said to her. That in itself was handicap enough. She and her husband had four healthy children followed by a handicapped son. He was totally incapacitated, needing everything to be done for him, including feeding. To my mind that mother had a great burden to bear, but apparently she didn’t think that way. She got on with her life and didn’t compare herself with others. I used to see her standing at the gate waiting to greet the child when he came home Tom the day centre. She was always happy and cheerful to talk to. At this time the boy was fifteen years old. She and her family had carried their burden without complaint for all those years. It was a pleasant household to visit. Maybe she, like Mary, was making her contribution towards the price of our freedom. I also meet people who seem unable to lift themselves under the weight of their burden. It is for us to help them to accept and carry it.
Being there for each other
My experience of working closely with people has shown me that when there is poverty and deprivation, people stand side by side and support each other in the struggle. Where there is less poverty and more hope for the future, people support each other to a lesser degree.
There is no doubt that a burden shared is a burden lightened. We have a responsibility not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we can share. We can help each other to squeeze the joy out from suffering. Having worked in the north inner city for a number of years, I found it to be a place of great deprivation for many of those who lived and worked there. There wasn’t a blade of grass visible in an area that housed about three thousand people. The air was so polluted that it would choke you. Children hung around the streets after school getting up to mischief; they didn’t play much. There was an air of hopelessness and apathy.
Despite all this the people were marvellous. I, being full of enthusiasm, thought I could improve things through my work. I struggled and prayed through the ups and downs over the years until disappointment and frustration brought me to the verge of cracking up. God then sent a person who showed me a different way of looking at it. Over a period of a year we shared until I could see that my way was not God’s and my pain was of my own making. I had given all that I had to give to my work in the city, it was time to move, without feeling guilty that I had betrayed the people. The person I shared with was free of suffering at that time but the tables turned subsequently and I found myself supporting her at a later stage. In and through our own suffering we can come out of ourselves to be with others in their time of pain.
We are God’s gift to each other. As Mary pondered things so we must reflect on our own suffering. Often it is only in hindsight we can see the benefits and blessings.
This article first appeared in Spirituality (Sept/Oct 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.