Suffering is thwarted intention. You want something and you cannot have it. You want to do something and you cannot do it. You want someone to do something and they do not do it. You want things to go one way and they go the other way.
The main attribute of being human is our will. It is our way of expressing ourselves and our eternal destiny depends on what we will. When Jesus condemned looking at a woman with lust in one’s heart, he was speaking about the will. It’s the essential thing.
If you want to poison someone, but you don’t get around to it because you are the procrastinating sort, then you bear much of the guilt of someone who is more punctual.
What is in your heart?
If you have good intentions for others, your will is pure. If you have bad intentions for others, your will is in need of correction.
Because suffering is interrupted or thwarted intention, you cannot easily know whether someone has truly suffered.
Let me explain.
You hear the very sad story of a woman whose daughter has gone astray. She tells long stories to anyone who will listen about how, despite her very best and almost heroic efforts, her daughter has chosen the wrong path.
When you hear the story and assume that she is a normal mother, who wants the very best for her daughter, and loves her unconditionally, then you come away with the impression that this mother suffers deeply. You shake your head and you sigh that the world is truly a sorrowful place.
Now although you’ve done nothing wrong by assuming that the mother is portraying the truth of the entire matter, the human heart is often quite twisted.
Not every mother loves her daughter unconditionally. As a matter of fact, not every mother loves her daughter at all. It’s very unfortunate, but it’s true, and I far prefer nepotism to an absence of parental love. Nepotism, after all, is a (misplaced) manifestation of something normal. An absence of natural parental love is always deliberately chosen and is highly unnatural.
So let’s study the hypothetical case of Helga. Helga is more than ready to tell you, in detail, about her daughter’s misdemeanors and flagrant immorality. As a matter of fact, she will derail an entire social gathering to make her sorrowful story the centre of attention. She is showered with attention; sympathy is shown (if not felt). People sigh about “free will.”
The good-hearted people empathize deeply, imagining how they would feel if put into the same predicament. Their hearts break at the thought of separation from their own daughter, of similar age. They pray rosaries for Helga and her situation.
The thing is, Helga never cared much for her daughter. “Take her or leave her” would be a fair description. Nevertheless, nobody realizes this truth because Helga has always known better than to admit something which would make her sound, well, cold and uncaring. But the truth is that from the get-go, Helga was rather ambivalent about the kid.
Fast forward a few years, and Helga is basking in the attention, and each new development in her daughter’s life is simply more material to share with her sympathizers. “Woe is me!” is the tune that Helga plays on her violin. But her will has not, in fact, been thwarted. She is not suffering.
Another example: Flavian wants a job. He really, really wants to work — or so it seems. We sympathize because he just isn’t getting what he wants and we sigh that he’s another casualty of the economic downturn. We empathize by imagining ourselves jobless and without prospects. But what is Flavian’s true and deep desire? Does he want to work? Well, not really. He likes the idea of the money, but the part about working — well, it depends. What are the hours?
As it turns out, Flavian is not at all like Pablo, who genuinely wants to work, and who is willing to try his hand at almost anything. Pablo searches online for opportunities, and when he’s not doing that, he’s cooking supper for his wife and learning English. Both men are unemployed, but they do not suffer equally. Pablo suffers more, as he wonders whether he’ll be able to provide for his family.
My point is, you really can’t measure the suffering of another.
Manuel has broken his leg and now he can’t play basketball as he planned. How much does he suffer? Well, it turns out he kind of enjoys the entire medical nature of the injury and he’s decided that he’s going to be an orthopaedic surgeon one day. As for the basketball game, it’s not a big deal to him, though he won’t admit this to his teammates, who see sports as life-defining.
People are very careful about what they reveal. In particular, it is very often the type who appear to ‘say anything’ and who appear to be entirely relaxed, spontaneous and natural, who are calculating the most. They just calculate faster than you realize. In the time that it took you to decide what to say next, they’ve mentally experimented with four options.
Not everyone knows how to sound cool or intelligent or funny or charming, though people try.
People are quite good, however, at hiding what they feel is embarrassing or uncool or damning about themselves. In general, they just don’t mention it. They pretend it doesn’t exist and that it’s the furthest from their thoughts. “What? ME? You think that I would look at women in that way?”
And so it is that we underestimate the darkness in the hearts of our fellow man. We assume that all the “bad guys” are facing criminal charges or robbing the local convenience store. But consider: why were Jesus’ harshest words reserved for the holy elite? Even the rich tax collectors didn’t get the brunt of his disapproval. As a matter of fact, he enraged the Pharisees by saying that the known “bad” people would go into heaven before the known “good” people.
It’s always this reversal. It’s a constant theme in both the Old Testament and the New: things are not what they seem! Only God knows the whole truth.
I mention all these things because God doesn’t get enough credit. People believe they observe more suffering than they do, and they blame God. If they only knew how convoluted and absurd the human heart was, they’d realize many people are quite pleased with the turn of their life events!
Conversely, people fail to perceive the suffering of others. Look at that man who seems to have it all. He’s got fame and money and a beautiful family. He’s got everything you think you want.
Didn’t he commit suicide a few years ago?
Yes, he did.
The suffering of Jesus’ mother Mary was acute, but did anyone perceive the depth of her sorrow? They could not fathom it, because they could not comprehend the tremendous love that she had for her son, and his corresponding love for her. It was a relationship with no parallel on earth. She watched as humanity tortured her precious and innocent Son in order to destroy his body and kill him.
And, in the case of Jesus, it is far easier to sigh over his physical suffering, but that was not his worst. His worst suffering was the sense of abandonment that he felt. He felt abandoned by his Father, and by almost everyone else.
In other words, even the graphic death of Jesus presents another example of this rule: people are unable to properly measure the suffering of others.
You could have a Job in your midst and you wouldn’t know it, because you’re looking for the tell-tale signs of suffering. You’re looking for the diagnosis of cancer or the house burned to the ground and the GoFundMe campaign.
Some of the deepest suffering is entirely hidden from you.
Spiritual suffering is the worst kind of suffering, and can leave one breathless. What have you heard? What have you read? What do you know? Does it not descend upon a person like labour pains and then vanish as if it never happened at all?
I like Chesterton’s description — where he said it, I can’t recall — something about being so sad that one forgets that it is possible to be happy and then being so happy that one forgets it is possible to be sad.
Something like that.