Our baby daughter, Niamh, is teething at the moment. We have two older children who are aged seven and five and I had forgotten how hard it is to watch a baby who is really upset and aggravated by teething. Last night, I had Niamh lying beside me in the bed, looking up at images of stars and moons floating around on the walls and ceiling. We had some relaxing chillout music playing in the background to create a soothing atmosphere for her. But Niamh wasn’t actually crying a lot; instead she was whimpering, putting her fingers in her mouth and, now and again, she would let out a shout and furiously and frantically gnaw at her fist or her dummy. You could clearly see she was annoyed and aggravated by those bottom teeth trying to make their way up to the surface of the gum. Eventually, with some Calpol and then bonjela on her gums, she gently closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. And then I lifted her gently into her cot where she slept soundly for the next couple of hours.
While Niamh had been sleeping beside me, I started to think about the people with whom I am in contact who are being affected by the Covid-19 virus. These happen to be both friends and colleagues. But I also started to think about suffering in general.
There are certain types of pain and suffering that we know have a greater good. Niamh’s teething is necessary for her to have teeth that will help her chew her food so that she can have a good diet and grow healthy and strong. It is also not a bad thing for our children (with no serious underlying health problems) to get colds or viruses when they are so young – we hate watching them being sick (or cleaning it up!!) or seeing them being under the weather but we know that these illnesses will ultimately build up their immune system. Even if children hurt themselves (within reason) by climbing too high or doing some other risky behaviour, we know that the pain they experience may teach them to be more careful in the future. In all these cases, we don’t want our children to suffer but we know that there can be a benefit or a meaning to it. Or we could take the example of athletes – the pain and discomfort they put themselves through is often for a greater goal that gives meaning and purpose in their lives. It even becomes a way of life. So we can bear with some suffering.
But what about tragic suffering? Unspeakable suffering? Does all suffering have meaning? This is a question that has haunted humanity since time began. This is not the place to go into the debate about the existence of a good God alongside evil and suffering; there are plenty of people more intelligent and wiser than I who have written plenty of excellent books on this topic. But there are undoubtedly people who find meaning in the most horrific suffering.
The Bible addresses suffering quite a lot, especially meaning in the face of suffering. The Book of Job tells of a devoted follower of God who loses everything and suffers unspeakably but refuses to blame God for this. His friends try to convince him that he must have done something to deserve it but Job refuses to believe it. Instead, he trusts in God despite not having any answers. St Paul says to his fellow Christians in the Book of Romans that “we also boast of our suffering, because we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance brings God’s approval, and his approval creates hope”. St Paul and his friends were persecuted, beaten, scourged, put into prison and threatened with death, yet he could claim that this suffering was worth it.
Having just celebrated Easter, we are reminded that the reality of the cross and resurrection has given multitudes of people hope that, even in the midst of cruel and seemingly senseless suffering (this is what Jesus’ horrible death seemed to be to those who were onlookers), there is hope. Hope that in someway or somehow or some day, it will make sense to us or that there is a greater picture we can’t see at present. To Jesus’ mother, his friends and family there could have been no greater suffering – to think otherwise is to completely misunderstand this event. It seemed utterly meaningless. But the resurrection inspires many people to look to the cross or even wear a cross so as to hold onto the belief that suffering and death will not have the last word or it will not define their lives. Ultimately, the suffering and death of Jesus has transformed how they view and experience suffering. Christians do not think of life simply in terms of this life on earth – they think in terms of eternity. Not some kind of sugary-coated existence on clouds, with souls playing harps with the angels and singing “Hallelujah” No, eternity is a vision of a future when heaven and earth meet and where every suffering we have endured on earth, the tears we have shed for our loved ones, the questions we have always asked, the justice that we have craved; all these will be given ultimate meaning in this future. It is called resurrection.
A book that had a huge impact on me was Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. If you haven’t read it, please do. He was a prisoner of war in three different concentration camps during World War II and had seen his wife, father and mother killed in these camps. Everyday he lived with the prospect of execution. Now, for me, the Holocaust was the ultimate example of suffering in which no meaning could be found. How could there be? The totality of evil was clear to see. But Frankl did find meaning in this living hell and that is why his work is so important. He believed that even if everything can be taken from a person, even if every conceivable pain and suffering can be unleashed upon them, one thing cannot be taken, “the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s way.” And he believes this is what gave him hope amid hopelessness.
I always found it interesting that when I was a volunteer counsellor in a Cancer Support Centre, a number of patients, whether they were in remission or were terminally ill, spoke of how their experience of cancer gave them a greater appreciation of the important things in life and gave them a stronger character, which in turn led to greater hope. Sometimes I was truly humbled when a person, with only weeks to live, shared with me how they believed that the remaining time they had left, even their suffering, still had a meaning and purpose. As Frankl said in his book: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how'”.
In our current situation, you may have noticed that many organisations, institutions and charities are doing just that; they are trying to find meaning in these circumstances and communicate that to the public. There is no doubt that this experience is causing many to re-evaluate how they live and work, it is helping people to see the value of relationships and family, how the mourning and grieving rituals that we so often take for granted are so valuable to us, how important our healthcare and NHS is to our country. In many situations, people are finding their strength and their hope amidst sickness and death in their religious and spiritual beliefs. And we are seeing incredible outpourings of love and generosity in so many ways in our communities and city.
But what do we do when faced with another’s suffering? Well, what were we able to do for Niamh last night? We couldn’t stop her teething or make it disappear. It would be amazing if we could suddenly make all her teeth suddenly appear! No, we gave her some Calpol, some bonjela, sang to her and gently soothed her in our arms. That’s all we could do…show her as much tenderness and love as we could. And it was enough.
In the same way, we will find ourselves in situations where we cannot take away another’s pain. We cannot end their suffering – we will desperately want to but we can’t. And we don’t have the answers. All we can do is be there for them; soothing and comforting them with words and actions that can give them hope and reassurance. And that, ultimately, is what loving our neighbour is all about. It is all about love. The Beatles were right. And the gospel has love as its source and its centre. It was Love that created us, Love that bears us, Love that drives us, Love that died for us and Love that awaits us at the end. That is why it is called “Good News.”
I leave the last words to Victor Frankl, a man, let us not forget, who experienced terror and suffering on a scale we could only imagine:
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which (humans) can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of (humanity) is through love and in love.”