"Man suffers most through fear of suffering," said Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum, as cited by Father Jacques Philippe in Interior Freedom. I reread this modern classic while recovering for months from the after-effects of a virus I caught in Kenya. I experienced first-hand how quickly the fear of suffering can grip one's heart, and noted how completely this fear has seized the modern psyche. The fear of suffering lurks in the dark corners of the collective unconscious of our secular culture. This fear is arguably the principal emotional motivation behind abortion and euthanasia. Accordingly, any efforts to curb the encroachments of the culture of death must help people face and overcome this primal, pre-rational and at times overwhelming fear of suffering.
Without attempting to ascertain exactly how and when Western Christendom shifted into a modern secular age, we can highlight one transition in the Deism of the Enlightenment, whose intellectual leaders, proud of their rationality, would readily acknowledge a Creator but shy away from Jesus Christ. The Enlightenment seemed embarrassed by the unpleasant specifics of Christianity: that Christ was more than a feel-good prophet who taught the Golden Rule; He was the unique Son of God, who redeemed us by this Mystery of His suffering and death for us, followed by His glorious Resurrection. The Enlightened proposed that we could enjoy the benefits of Christianity without the blood, without all this talk of sin and redemption.
As long as civilization could thrive — for centuries — on the accumulated interest of Christian morality, everything seemed to run smoothly. But now, by removing the bloody Christ from our Christianity, we have discovered a disturbing truth. Once we eliminate Christ's suffering and death from our religious and social discourse, sooner or later we lose the meaning of our own suffering and death. As the meaning of suffering fades, so the fear of suffering expands like an ever growing cancer in our culture of death, functioning as a prime subconscious motivator behind abortion and euthanasia.
Mother Teresa once remarked, "as far as I am concerned, the greatest suffering is to feel alone, unwanted, unloved." A young girl seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a puerile boyfriend can end up feeling alone, unwanted and unloved, and easily tempted to choose the seemingly quick fix of an abortion. An elderly man with distant adult children, professionals with demanding jobs and their own busy families, can feel himself a burden as he loses his health and independence and is no longer "useful" to society. In his final illness, with little or no hope of recovery, feeling alone, unwanted and unloved, he could easily be persuaded that his life is not worth living. Perhaps a quick and painless injection might be better for him, and for everyone else.
In both cases, one could argue that the fear of future suffering far outweighs actual suffering. The elderly man might be pain-free in the present but fears future dolours. The girl might be unnoticeably pregnant in the present but fears a future ruined life. The fear of suffering is insidious and underestimated and must absolutely be unmasked and disarmed.
If the young girl finds herself pregnant and overcome with fear of future suffering, then her decision is made. If all she can see is the prospect of a ruined life — loss of freedom, education, career and income, with the threat of being permanently alone, abandoned and unloved — then the choice to abort her child might seem to be the only way out. But if she is filled with hope, then everything changes.
Let's say she has a loving boyfriend, supportive parents and the necessary support to complete her education. The fear of future suffering is dissipated, and her heart is lightened by the promise of good things to come and by the miraculous gift of a child in her arms. The same could be said of the elderly man: he could be overcome with fear of unbearable physical pain, or filled with hope by a loving family, good palliative care and faith in God.
How can fear of suffering be addressed and overcome? First we must recognize that this fear is chimerical and works most effectively on our minds, much as a loud bully who doesn't give us time to think. The choice of abortion or the push for euthanasia can spring from a reaction to fear, rather than be inspired by a prayerful decision guided by reason. But fear results in poor decisions at best, and can often lead to slavery. As the Letter to the Hebrews relates, Jesus by His death freed those who through fear of death (and suffering) had been slaves their whole life long.
Reason can do its part to unmask the fear of suffering, but the real courage to overcome this fear ultimately springs from the prior conviction, often based on faith, that suffering is meaningful. Here our modern secular culture fails us abysmally. In our times, the desire to alleviate suffering — in itself a noble goal — has turned into an obsessive drive to eliminate all suffering, because deep down we are no longer convinced it has meaning. Suffering is an evil that must be blotted out. We have reached a reductio ad absurdum in our society: if we can't eliminate suffering, we will eliminate the sufferer.
As I lived through months of recuperation following the virus I contracted in Kenya, I was reminded how much we need to recover the Christian meaning of suffering. The truths of the Christian faith are a key to the meaning of suffering, but I find them insufficient if they remain abstract truths, bones without flesh. Yes, I believe that Christ suffered and died for me, and that my sufferings united to His have salvific value. Saint Paul, for instance, wrote that by his own sufferings he was making up for what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church (Colossians 1:24). But how does Christ crucified and risen actually touch my life?
Of course, I kept up my daily devotions as a priest, including the Mass and the breviary. But I found real consolation through the mediation of other people, friends on earth and friends in Heaven — the saints. I found comfort in the compassion of friends who had been through similar trials and had grown as a result. I found inspiration in the lives of the saints who had suffered: Brother André, Mother Teresa, Saint Teresa of Avila and countless others.
I recall reading with some astonishment in the biography of Saint Brother André his words to a friend complaining of the ailments of old age: "Be grateful to God for coming to you by trials, for you are very fortunate. If we knew the value of suffering, we would fall on our knees and with suppliant hands ask it from God." He added: "God takes care of His friends and best servants by sending them the Cross. Suffering is of such great value, it can be fully rewarded only in Heaven."
Unlike Brother André, I cannot with suppliant hands "ask it of God." On the contrary, I fall on my knees and beg Him to take it away. Yet, I was helped by Brother André's courageous example, realizing that his transcendental and eternal perspective on suffering was the fruit of his daily meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
I also received strength in reading survival literature: Victor Frankl in Auschwitz, Father Walter Ciszek in the Soviet Gulag, Cardinal Van Thuan in a communist prison in Vietnam. They reminded me that suffering is universal and inescapable. Why should our times be easier? Why should I be exempt? And all of them testified to the transforming power of suffering. They all emerged from the crucible better people. The same could happen to me, I reasoned, if only I persevered with patience and hope.
I don't know what it is like to face a personal decision regarding abortion or euthanasia, but I do know what it means to have one's heart gripped by the fear of suffering while desperately desiring to escape it. Since I was helped by other people, I am absolutely convinced that Christians have a unique mission in accompanying those tempted by the so-called solution of abortion or euthanasia.
In his first apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis urges Christians to practise "the art of accompaniment" by listening to others with an open heart and making present the "fragrance of Christ's closeness and his personal gaze." Through this compassionate charity of Christians, Christ Himself can draw near to those who suffer, and inspire them with hope to overcome fear.