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The Secret of Life is Suffering

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In English, the word “suffer” has at least two different but related meanings, both of which are important for contemplating how suffering affects our spiritual and moral development. In the first, suffering imposes itself upon us, against our will or consent. In the second sense, we consent to suffering as an act of will. In the former, our moral development indicates how well we endure; in the latter, our relative moral maturity indicates how willingly we consent. Broadly speaking, as the result of unexpected, contingent events, the two varieties of suffering are similar. But they differ in the relative role volition plays in
the person who suffers.

In the first, more obvious meaning, to suffer is to incur some misfortune or misadventure against our will and outside of our control. Jeffrey suffers a broken arm from a fall. Beth suffers a disease from exposure to a virus. Bill suffers a chronic condition from a genetic inheritance. Wanda suffers a heart attack. Similarly, a person might suffer a false accusation that harms her reputation or freedom. The suffering may be manifest in the form of restraint, financial penalty, or public calumny. In all these cases, the suffering is physiological, medical or psychological, and it has nothing to do with the exercise of our will. In fact, it is against our will. This is suffering that is imposed upon us.

The second, less common use of the term suffering is related to our voluntary acceptance of some inconvenience or burden. To suffer in this way is to willingly assume some burden or hardship, which includes permitting someone to come into our company. Suffering in this sense is a close synonym to “allow.” Thus, we might assume the debt of a friend or relative or permit a stranger to stay in our house or otherwise use our property. The most challenging suffering in this manner is making the moral decision to endure those who suffer in the first sense. Through expenditure of emotional energy, material wealth or spiritual discipline we assume or share the hardship, misfortune, or pain of another, which may assist us in developing the virtues that contribute to a rich moral life, difficult as it may be.

An important corollary to this second meaning of suffering is a situation when we feel a moral obligation to suffer the suffering of another, but do not have the moral courage to assume the obligation. Because we have the freedom to respond or not to the call, our choice is intact— we can indeed resist and experience a moral failure. We ought to comfort a sick relative, for example, but we fail or refuse. In the same way that suffering with others contributes to the virtuous life, refusing to do so might inhibit our moral maturity.

Contemplated together, all these considerations of suffering have profound moral implications. Suffering will have an effect on our moral or spiritual development. The only question is whether that suffering will be beneficial or destructive.

In the winter of 1897, as he neared the completion of a two- year prison term, Oscar Wilde wrote a book-length letter that became known by the title “De Profundis,” or “from the depths.” Written from the depths of his own suffering, the book is, in part, a sustained meditation on the moral implications of suffering. Even though Wilde knew as he wrote the letter that he would soon be released from prison, he also knew that for the rest of his life he would suffer from the scandal that led to his imprisonment. His reputation could never be restored, and his perpetual financial ruin was established by lawsuits that claimed any profits from future work. Thus, suffering had become “one very long moment,” Wilde conceded. “We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return.” Quoting Wordsworth, Wilde concluded that his suffering “is permanent, obscure, and dark/And has the nature of infinity.”

But while Wilde recognized that his sufferings would be endless, “I could not bear them to be without meaning,” he wrote. “Now I find … that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all.” Suffering “is really a revelation,” he contended. “One discerns things one never discerned before. One approaches the whole of history from a different standpoint.” What Wilde had seen dimly through art “is intellectually and emotionally realized with perfect clearness of vision and absolute intensity of apprehension” through suffering.

Both forms of suffering noted above gave Wilde this clearness of vision. In the first instance, he suffered public ridicule, imprisonment and penury from an unjust conviction. In the second instance, he experienced the joining of his suffering by one particular person—an unnamed woman who visited him in prison and gave him financial, emotional and moral sustenance. She helped him “to bear the burden” of his troubles “more than anyone else in the whole world … and all through the mere fact of her existence.”

And what lesson did Wilde learn with such certitude and clarity? “There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility,” he explained. “That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is humility.” And it was his suffering that found it out. “To humility there is nothing that is impossible,” Wilde concluded, “and to love all things [is] easy.” This humility led to Wilde’s full reception into the Catholic Church just before his untimely death in 1900. For Wilde, suffering was the teacher, humility was the lesson and salvation was the result. May it be the same for us all.

Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the April 2023 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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