Monday, March 07, 2005

School of Suffering

Published March 7, 2005

Largely ignored by Hollywood and the Oscars this last month, The Passion of the Christ will be re-released March 11, 2005 in a new recut version of the highly acclaimed film. We are looking forward to seeing this on Good Friday as part of a new Lenten tradition which our family started last year. After seeing it in the theaters four times, with different family members, I took away something different with each viewing. I’ve never seen a film in the theaters more than once before. This work of art was the only exception. It was a school of suffering and redemption.

Suffering in any situation is hard to witness, especially with those we love and care about. Grieving the loss of a loved one, losing one’s health, freedom or prosperity can cause anyone to suffer, but what is it in a suffering person that brings out virtue? Perhaps virtues of hope, compassion and perseverance are only born through suffering. Perhaps one can only learn mercy when mercy is shown them in suffering. Some of my life’s most important lessons were in my own suffering. I cannot believe that suffering is devoid of value or purpose.
Suffering brings out virtue in those who endure it and witness it. No one in life can avoid suffering. However we are living in a culture that seeks to deny it and suppress it. Whether through euthanasia, partial birth infanticide or the cloning of human beings, this search and destroy mentality seeks to deny life at the expense of another life or for mere convenience. Are we going to put down people like animals or do people have intrinsically greater value by virtue of their souls?

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta saw God in all the suffering she sought to relieve in those whom society had cast aside and asunder. She claimed it was her work. She taught a worldwide order of nuns to carry it on and assist those who bitterly suffer. The goal of the missionaries of charity is the nourishment of dying bodies and souls. Would it have ever occurred to Mother Teresa to euthanize the people she picked up off India’s streets? Her school taught that love can be given to the suffering through aid and comfort.

In Florida, Terri Schiavo, a young woman with a brain injury, has become the center of national attention. Her life literally hangs in the balance because her husband is demanding that the courts allow for the immediate removal of her nutritional support. This action will cause her to starve to death. In addition to seeking the death of his wife, the husband has denied all therapies the physicians have prescribed and has prevented Terri’s parents from taking over her care which they have desperately sought the court’s permission to do. She is not in a persistent vegetative state as commonly misrepresented by the media. She interacts with her parents and friends, smiles and gestures when spoken to and shows understanding of what goes on around her. She cannot swallow food so she receives her food through a GI tube. She sits in her chair and watches television. She is not on a ventilator nor is she comatose.

Yet a court in Florida says she will die on March 18, unless somehow a higher court of appeal can intervene. How far down this slippery slope will we go? California will soon see legislation that Oregon and other assisted suicide states and countries have passed to their detriment. One need only look at countries that kill their handicapped to see how slippery this slope is. Voters in California are now faced with a grave moral dilemma. Who and how will someone be able to kill themselves or their loved ones in order to relieve “suffering”. Do we want a state mandate that gives this amount of power to anyone? How far will it extend and to whom? Will our slope go as deep and as far as Holland’s where people are killed without their consent? Since when do we as a society, condone the intentional starvation and dehydration of a fellow human being in the name of relieving “suffering”. There is no greater suffering than to die by starvation.

Does Terri’s life have value? Her family and friends seem to think so. Why Terri’s husband has persisted in this remains a mystery since he now has two children with his live in girlfriend, whom he is free to marry if he divorced Terri. What’s his interest in Terri’s death? One wonders.

Can life have value at all stages? Does someone’s life have value only when they are healthy and vibrant? Or rather, do the sick and disabled still have something of value to leave us? How else do we learn what they have to impart to us. When my children have gone to the hospital to visit the sick and dying of our friends and family they usually bring them gifts and they say prayers at their bedside. It has been a school where they have learned mercy, compassion, perseverance and humility. They are not afraid of death or illness. They have learned far more in this school of suffering, mostly courage to face their own illness and death. Caring for aging parents, sick spouses and children, while a hardship, can impart blessings which may not be realized for many years but who can regret such a sacrifice.

Suffering allows us time to prepare, especially when it’s near the end of life. It gives us time to say those things we need to say, mend those fences, build those bridges and make our peace. When someone says “God doesn’t understand my pain or my suffering”, show them the cross, for certainly God knows what it means. He wrote the book on it.

Tammy Maher is a resident of El Dorado Hills and bi-weekly columnist for the Mountain Democrat. You can reach her at

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