A Life Without Suffering
A life without suffering is no life at all.
Like many of a certain age here in America, my childhood was perfect. I had everything I could ask for—from a supportive family to a consistent stream of toys, video games, and collectibles to keep me occupied. I had money of my own to spend (mostly from generous relatives) and an excess of unearned confidence derived from the many who praised my “talents.”
When I think back on the most formative years of my youth, before adolescence set in, I can remember nothing uncomfortable or disturbing. And I have come to realize that this lack of suffering disconnected me from reality.
Finding Ourselves in the Other
Last night, my wife was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. I sat down next to her and was confronted by the story of a family lost at sea for nine days—fleeing chaos in Vietnam as the US intervention wound down.
Looking into the storyteller’s eyes, I encountered an individual who spoke with maturity and wisdom. His manner of life exuded a peace that passed my understanding … that is, until I realized how a near-death experience like his could instill gratitude beyond measure. The fragility of life and the ineptitude of human agency in the face of real crises are two realities from which I was “joyously” sheltered as a child.
As my wife and I discussed the story, she observed that suffering strengthens our communal bonds. Suffering that is not experienced in isolation is more manageable. Isolated suffering, or internal torment, is less so. When external circumstances produce persecution or danger, all involved can feel it in some way—from the oldest to the youngest. No one facing such risks can afford the luxury of isolation. Suffering is a result of sin, but it is also a means of overcoming sin when it is done for the common good.
Suffering and Christian Identity
We worship, though we often forget it, a God that embraced suffering. Jesus came not to condemn the world and its suffering but to “save” it all through suffering (John 3). The most basic tenet of the Christian walk is sacrifice—sacrifice not with the goal of placation, but transformation. The sacrifice of the heart involves testing everything—our words, actions, and motivations—to assess whether it bears fruit. And that fruit is selflessness. That fruit is love, and joy, and peace.
If we are insulated from loss, we cannot know true love. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us” (1 Jn 3). True love lays down life for friends. True love, as Siddhartha learned when he ventured out from his palace, begins in encounter with the suffering of another. That is why, at the center of our religion, we have a suffering servant. Christ’s suffering is the ultimate co-shouldering of the burden of pain—a burden that all will experience. Let us all, like Simon the Cyrene, carry the burden with Jesus. The world groans in suffering—but that very groaning is what unites us as humans and carries us toward Beatitude on the narrow way.
 After sharing this idea with a student, they pointed out the danger of making assertions, from a place of privilege, about the happiness of those who are less fortunate. It can sound like talking down—trying to minimize the reality of another’s suffering by saying: “Look, they grew through it.” While this objection is important (sometimes everything simply won’t “be okay”), I refuse to believe that it follows that some lives aren’t worth living because of suffering. It is also an abuse of privilege to look at, for instance, the life of a person whose parents were murdered by genocide and say: “It would be better if that person had not been born.”
 After the loss of a loved one, families come together in the shared experience of grief. On an individual level, “feeling the squeeze” is often what produces results. Without anything at stake, what motivation is there to achieve success? Why put in extra hours to produce a work of real ambition? Why sacrifice temporary comfort for the satisfaction of chipping away at a long-term goal? Only now I am realizing on a deep level that some form of suffering is often what drives people to change.