Reflections by Jennifer Geach
30th January 2018
It is a curious fact that we do not ask why there is beauty, truth, love and justice. We are inclined to take the good things that we enjoy for granted, as if they were our due, as if we in some way deserved them. By contrast, whenever pain, illness, suffering break into our lives, one of the questions that we ask is why? Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this? However, in the most well regulated and ordered lives, some suffering is inevitable; and many people suffer very greatly.
The spectacle of suffering in someone we love is even more painful, perhaps, than the endurance of suffering ourselves. Our reactions can include rage, despair, and even flight: it takes courage as well as compassion to attempt alleviation for suffering which can seem unendurable. Even the pain of animals, at least of mammals, can evoke sympathy; the pains of our fellow humans can seem more than we can endure.
Sometimes faced with the enormity of suffering, we can be tempted to abandon the sufferers, and to advocate or acquiesce in their killing. This is not compassion: it is abandonment. True compassion will stand by the sufferer, alleviating what can be alleviated, and always asserting that despite the pain, whether of body or mind, the person before us is valuable and beloved. Following this path is hard: but in sharing the sufferings of another, or enduring our own pains with courage, we may learn a great deal. It may be that it is the only way by which our hard hearts can be broken sufficiently to make the channels through which love can flow. As a race, we are flawed, and turned away from what is our primary purpose: love. We are pretty deaf to the day to day concerns of other people; we are, if not actively cruel, often disregarding of our neighbour. Consider our reactions to someone who has been bereaved: often we are discomfited in the immediate aftermath, and we forget very quickly that someone has lost a parent, a friend, a child. And sometimes it seems that the only way in which we can be woken up to a greater awareness of others is through suffering. Our hearts of stone need to be broken, or taken away altogether, and changed into hearts of flesh: and suffering may be the only way in which this can be achieved.
This does not mean that suffering, pain, death and disease are otherwise than evil: but out of these evils can come a reform, a conversion, a renewal of our lives. Through our own suffering, we may learn a new reliance on others, a new way of reaching out and relating to them: it may be that through suffering we can cease to be inappropriately self-reliant. The sufferings of others may alert us to in equalities and injustices which we ought to address; or may simply mean that we are enabled to reach out in sympathy and love to someone who had seemed unapproachable before. Suffering is like a heavy harrow on stony ground: it breaks through to the good soil beneath the stones, so that the seeds of love may find root and flourish in us.