Reflections

Suffering, Perseverance, Character, Hope

I am slowly emerging from a bout of strep throat — perhaps the most physical pain I’ve felt in a while.  I slept fitfully for almost two days, waking mostly to drink water and take medicine.  Once I woke up literally shaking my dreaming fist at my pain and screaming at it to go away.

And in my minor suffering, I have been remembering others who have suffered much worse — those who are in chronic physical or emotional pain that does not go away no matter how much they scream at it; those who have suffered losses of loved ones or identities that leave them rudderless and hollowed out; those who suffer hunger, fear, or oppression on a daily basis; those I watched in my chaplaincy internship make their journey toward death, a journey that often does not come easily.

I also was followed by these words that I had written a day or two earlier in response to the question of whether physician assisted suicide should be allowed (the “death with dignity” act):

“‘Death with dignity,’ as the phrase is most often used to denote the ability to die on your own terms without losing control of your body, is a really interesting concept to me. I wonder a lot about how this connects with our culture’s general lack of reverence for death (or even lack of ability to talk about it well). In a chaplaincy internship I was present for several long, struggling deaths, and although it was a painful thing to watch, it was also perhaps the most holy journey I have ever witnessed. I understand the desire for loved ones to be free from pain at the end, and I am ever appreciative of the sacred work of palliative care doctors and nurses. With advances in medicine, the physical pain associated with death can be mitigated a lot, which is of high importance.

“In talking about this question with churches and families, I would want to hear from them what they mean by “dignity”. American pride about our bodies and our ability to control and produce means that we equate inability to produce or control with indignity. This is part of why we sideline our elders and children and those with disabilities. I find myself wanting to reframe that and to remind ourselves that all life has dignity and no suffering encountered honestly is shameful. Death is not shameful (even though it feels that way) — in a Christian framework, death is ultimately a kind of birth.

“In terms of the laws about this, I think it is very dangerous to head down this path, partly because I think the medical model encourages a restitution model (see Arthur Frank, Wounded Storyteller) that primarily values cures, and where cures are not present other meaning-making options are often limited. As people of faith, we have many ways of making meaning at our disposal, most of which do not rely on cures.”

There is so much involved in the question of suffering for us, and it is never a black-and-white, once-and-for-all answer. It calls up deep emotions, desires, and fears.  Sorting through it requires immense humility and discernment, in part because so often theologies of suffering have been used to wound rather than heal.  But I wonder sometimes if a tendency to shy away from constructing a robust theology of suffering has hindered us from also really understanding other things that are sometimes connected to this topic — bodies, healing, community,…

Paul says that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

My little suffering this week connected me in some small but tangible way to the journey of Lent.  In this time we walk with Jesus as he witnesses and takes on suffering.  In this time, we notice bodies and dirt, tears and screams, weapons and wounds in the midst of the stories we hold as Sacred.  What will we learn?

For me, in this season, it has been this: Although suffering is not to be sought after, it often finds us.  And when it does, no suffering encountered honestly is shameful.

What about for you?

4 thoughts on “Suffering, Perseverance, Character, Hope”

  1. I really appreciate your reflections here on a faithful interpretation of dignity and end-of-life questions. I would say that like abortion, the church has an important and timely message to share of a consistent ethic of life (borrowed gratefully from our Catholic sisters and brothers), but that this message should not necessarily dictate national laws and policy because each life and situation is unique.

    I’ve just started studying the writings of Simone Weil for a class I’m auditing at Bethany with Ruthann Johansen. At the moment I’m unsure if I embrace her ideas or not, but she is an philosopher I’d encourage you to seek out if you haven’t already. Her essay on “The Love of God and Affliction” speaks to so many of these same questions of long suffering and loss of dignity.

    Thanks for sharing, and I hope that your body keeps feeling better.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Laura.

    I don’t think I really ever understood what Paul meant by “suffering produces perseverance…” until my wife died unexpectedly three years ago. The suffering of grief and challenge of single parenting have been tough, but have brought so many unexpected blessings along the way. The past three lenten seasons have been downright messy because of that–the challenges of walking with Jesus as he knowingly approaches suffering and sharing in this with the (relatively speaking) tiny sufferings of our own lives. While I don’t think I persevere very well, and my character is as messy as ever, the tiny bit of suffering in my life has brought depths of hope that and a insight into the heart of God that I could have never accessed otherwise.

  3. One of my favorite courses in undergrad was one called “Death.” The final exam had a question about what *else* “death with dignity” could mean, and that essay is one I’ve remembered since then. Either the readings or lectures somehow pointed me to the idea that “dignity,” for believers, may mean submitting to natural processes, being surrounded by people we love and who love us, and being honest about our human limitation. I spent time with a dying man and his family yesterday, and was reminded of that question. Then I read your post. Thanks, sister.

    I don’t know what lesson Lent is teaching this year, but it is surely something about human finitude and limits.

  4. Thank you, all of you, for your wonderful comments. I met a woman last night who is an ER nurse and a hospice volunteer, and she and I got to talking about this. For her, the honoring of the patient is accompanying them on their journey, which means allowing them the choice of how far they go and when they stop to rest. She made a really beautiful case for it. Although I think she and I would still disagree, her story emphasizes your point, Monica, that perhaps public policy should allow the option to be there for individuals to decide, on a case by case basis, with their loved ones. Questions of the protection of the weaker members of society arise for me, too, here — would there ever be situations in which someone, especially someone already confused or weak, could feel pressured by the medical model? Also present for me is the question of “terminal diagnosis” — where is that cutoff line? So complex! I will definitely put Simone Weil on my reading list. Thanks for the suggestion!
    Eric and Dana, thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories. So much suffering! And yet you tell with grace of the hope and love that are also present. Dana, it’s the “sturdy kindness” that’s sturdier, even, than death and suffering.

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