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Suffering, Pain and Love

I had the honor this past weekend of being asked to present a paper to the Catholic Psychotherapy Association on the topic of suffering and how one might properly provide necessary counseling in a manner that reflects uncompromising respect for the dignity of the human person.  Cheery topic, eh?  Nevertheless, it was enlightening to research.  (For those interested, St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris [1] and a complementary article in Communio [2] are good resources.)   In dialogues with colleagues and clients, I was reminded of the powerful and proper place of suffering in the human condition.  Not all suffering is bad.  Some suffering is necessary for change and growth, and all suffering has the potential to reveal what is most human about us: the capacity for self-giving love.

Upon returning home, my wife shared with me a cover story from this week’s print edition of People magazine entitled My Decision to Die [3].  In the article, 29-year old Brittany Maynard, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, states “I’m dying, but I’m choosing to suffer less…to put myself through less physical and emotional pain and my family as well.”  Sounds reasonable.  Yes?  Her plan is to take a fatal dose of drugs early next month in the presence of her husband, mom, stepfather, and best friend.  Her earthly pain will certainly cease with her demise, but what of the consequences for her family?

Suffering and Pain

Standard arguments for euthanasia in such cases include the reality that an observer cannot know the extent or degree of another person’s experience of pain.  They also argue that claims cannot be made against an individual’s right to self-determination.  As Ms. Maynard states forthrightly: “My question is, Who thinks they have the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice?”  I should be explicit that this writing is not intended to place judgment upon Ms. Maynard, but, of course, the short answer to her question from a Christian pro-life perspective is that the Author of Life has that right, as reflected in the condemnation of euthanasia and suicide by every Christian tradition.

Ms. Maynard clarifies that her desire is to be in control of her own mind, and to be with her family, at the time of her death—both of which she believes will render the event less terrifying.  From a psychological perspective, her logic contains some truth.  Perceived control over unpleasant circumstances often decreases stress and increases positive emotions and mood.  However, clinical wisdom also tells us that decisions made out of fear and a desire to escape, are seldom the best decisions.  As compelling as it is to focus on the impact Ms. Maynard’s decisions will have on her, I fear that this focus is too narrow to capture the full implications of what she plans.

Suffering and Love

The fullness of any act of suicide—planned, assisted, witnessed, or not—must necessarily consider those left behind.  Ms. Maynard believes that her family will experience less pain by her dying at her own hand and in their presence.  Yet clinicians’ offices are filled with people who experience complicated bereavement (at best) and post-traumatic stress disorder from surviving or witnessing the suicide of a loved one.  Perhaps the planning ahead and time to communicate with the to-be-deceased could have some benefit as it generally does with an anticipated natural death, but witnessing death is never easy.

Whether death is orchestrated, as Ms. Maynard plans, or natural, those who witness the moment of death of the suffering person are naturally impacted.  However, the potential impacts of dying can begin long before actual death.  This reflection led me to explore how the process of suffering has an important impact of its own on those around the suffering person.  St. Pope John Paul II, no stranger to suffering and pain in dying, wrote [1] decades before that “suffering…is present…in our human world…in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of oneself on the behalf of others….  [T]he world of suffering calls unceasingly for the world of love.”

We can see that this vision of suffering is different from the individualistic and isolating experience of mere pain and misery; suffering is an opportunity for engaging others, uniting in relationship, calling for communion and community.  As such, unavoidable suffering is vital for each person’s growth, engaging us in ways that open us to communion and charity.  “To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Spe Salvi [4]  #39)

In a different way, John Paull II Institute for Marriage and Family’s Professor Granados makes the case [2] that “openness to suffering guides us to solidarity with our fellow men.  [T]here is encountered an intense, poignant experience of connection and potentially love.  Man is then moved to compassion, which is the adequate answer for all suffering…that is, an identification with the suffering person that awakens suffering in us and reminds us of our reference to God-a need to look at the good that precedes all evil.”

Suffering has its place, then.  It provides a clear reminder for all of us of our unavoidable connection to each other and to the transcendent.  And it provides an opportunity to glimpse in some manner that original boundary experience which is truly intended by our Creator in relationships, as we allow ourselves to be with, and suffer with, another who has, thereby, been so greatly separated from the beauty that life has to offer.

For the suffering person, when another takes care it reawakens in him who suffers the sense of his own dignity.   And therein emerges a beginning to the answer of the question: Why me?  Compassion is a call to love in return, and by so doing we give suffering—ours and theirs—the form of love.

Recently, I was reminded of the powerful and proper place of suffering in the human condition. Not all suffering is bad. Some suffering is necessary for change and growth, and all suffering has the potential to reveal what is most human about us…