A few hours before the attacks in Paris occurred last Friday, I was reading an article about the student protests at the University of Missouri, and the article linked to an interview by NPR discussing the protests. Host Audie Cornish asked writer Roxanne Gay about the concept of “safe space” on college campuses.
CORNISH: Something that people may be hearing more that they may not totally be familiar with is this idea of a safe space – that students are saying that, I should feel protected and that this is something that the university or these environments should be invested in creating. Roxane, help us understand this for people who think that – who have described this as coddling.
GAY: I mean, what’s wrong with being coddled once in a while? This notion that we should just be thrown to the lions and make do is absurd. There is very little to be gained from suffering. And I think what students are looking for is a space where they don’t have to suffer emotionally.
And while I could go in about seven different directions from this point, six of them would be sarcastic ranty political directions, so I’ll stick with the seventh option, which is to focus on this line: “There is very little to be gained from suffering.”
First of all, let’s state the obvious: suffering sucks. It’s unpleasant. That’s what suffering means. Most of us try to avoid it as much as possible, with varying degrees of success. But no one is entirely successful, are they? No one gets through life without a single bad day, without a single pang of sadness or remorse or humiliation. Suffering is a part of life. Misunderstandings, shame, natural disasters, hot tempers, old houses, finances, tense relationships, injuries–the potential for suffering is everywhere. We can’t avoid it all.
If we are inevitably going to have to deal with suffering in our lives, wouldn’t it help to prepare ourselves for it, acknowledge it, and find some meaning in it, rather than blithely suggest that “there is very little to be gained” in any of it? I can tell you that such a suggestion won’t bring any comfort or relief to people who are actually suffering right now, that’s for sure. “Sorry, guys, I know this sucks, and also it’s all totally pointless. So… good luck!”
The truth is, there is a lot that can be gained from suffering, if we can screw up the courage and the strength to endure.
Suffering is a great instructor. If we can hold on to our humanity in the midst of the storm, suffering teaches us compassion and empathy. It can deepen our capacity for love. It makes us rearrange our priorities, and focus on what’s really important. It gives us opportunities to serve each other, individually and in community.
Beyond its ability to school us, we also know that suffering has meaning because we worship a God who suffered. Our God is He who willingly carried a cross to Calvary and then was nailed to it. He suffered the most painful, humiliating death possible, through no fault of His own, out of perfect love for each one of us.
That’s the difference between Christianity and the rest of the world: we know that suffering can be meaningful. Suffering has been redeemed, and can be transformed, if we are brave enough to look it in the face and be open to the transformation.
God’s plans are often inscrutable to us puny humans, but we know that ultimately He is in control and wills good for us. Sometimes our suffering may be part of a larger plot line that we just don’t see yet; other times it may be a way of transforming us into the heroes we are meant to be. Sometimes it’s a total mystery–when it feels like nothing could possibly justify the scope of a tragedy.
When society says, “suffering is useless,” they are faced with two choices: attempt to eradicate suffering (which is impossible) or fall into despair.
As Christians and as Catholics, we can affirm that yes, suffering hurts. A lot. And we affirm that pain–cheerily chirping that “everything happens for a reason!” in the face of tragedy doesn’t make anyone feel any better. But it doesn’t have to be for nothing. It can be an opportunity for us to grow–in fortitude, in love, in service to others, or in trust in God. He knows what we are feeling. He has felt our pain Himself.
If suffering is useless, then ISIS has already won in Paris–they inflicted a serious wound on the City of Light. The pain is great. Our hearts are heavy.
But we say no. The world has responded to the call, and rallied around the victims with love and solidarity, helping to carry their burdens and bandage their wounds. We are called to be generous, giving “until it hurts” to those in need. We are called to stand up with courage and defy ISIS’ hope that we will crumble in fear and sorrow–to join together under a banner of hope.
We don’t seek suffering for its own sake, but it comes–as it always does eventually–we can choose how to respond. Despair or hope. Nihilism or meaning. Dark or light. The grave–or the Resurrection.