Some will understand more fully than others.
It’s a Wednesday, and you arrive home to find the one you love collapsed on the bedroom floor. The rescue squad brings her to the hospital. Now she lies in neurological intensive care with a brain aneurysm, her skull shaven, kept alive with breathing and feeding tubes, monitored for heartbeat and brain activity. Surrounding her are other patients, many of them unconscious from blood clots in the brain, blows to the head, or some other trauma.
On Friday, the neurosurgeon tells you there is no hope. Her condition is inoperable, her chances of recovery nil. A friend puts you in touch with a Catholic bishop halfway across the country, an expert on death and dying. You describe her condition. The bishop tells you that when they remove the ventilator, and if she can breathe on her own, the Church requires she be given water and feeding tubes. He then adds, “From what you’ve told me, your wife will die within the hour once the ventilator is taken away.”
There is only compassion and sorrow in his voice.
On Monday, you follow the advice of the medical team and the bishop.
You give permission to remove the ventilator. You and your children—the youngest is 8 years old—whisper prayers and say your goodbyes.
Within an hour, or less, she is gone.
The bishop was correct about the timing.
And you did the right thing. Everyone says so.
What no one has told you is that for the rest of your days on earth you will be visited by grief and guilt. You gave permission for them to pull that ventilator. You authorized the certain death of someone you love. You will always remember her first choked breath when they took away the breathing tube, the way her body lurched upward from lack of oxygen. Later, you think of all the things you wanted to say to her: the apologies for those times you hurt her, how special she was, how she supported your dreams, the laughter and adventures you shared, the fine children the two of you raised. Before she went away, you told her you loved her, but you will always wonder whether she could hear you.
Welcome to the land of suffering.
Human happiness is conditional; suffering is a given. No matter how rich we may be, no matter how intelligent, no matter how kind and good, at some point life is going to grab us by the lapels, give us a shaking, and take us down.
Knowing this, we try to avoid suffering whenever possible. We surround ourselves with physical comforts. We have heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer, food that not only sustains us but also gives us pleasure, and the best medical care in the world. When we battle depression or some other illness of the soul, we seek out counselors and therapists. We take prescribed medications to reduce our physical and emotional aches and pains, and to raise our spirits. We seek distraction from our distress in electronic entertainment.
And why not? There is no nobility in suffering for suffering’s sake.
How we handle our suffering is another matter altogether. That 10-year-old kid with leukemia who always has a smile on her face and a kind word for the nurses; that woman who lost her husband and children in a car crash who still volunteers in her church’s soup kitchen; that wounded soldier who gives up his place on the chopper to a more severely injured friend; that young assistant who holds her tongue and keeps her cool when her boss reviles her for mistakes he has caused; that couple who watch their premature baby struggling for breath and life: These are the ones who, when racked by tribulation, expand their souls.
Here is the point where nobility enters into suffering.
Here is the classroom where we best learn about ourselves.
For pain is a better teacher than pleasure. Our pleasures may strongly move us—the first time we hold our newborn child, a glorious ocean sunset, the compliments of a friend or a loved one, the shining beauty of a stranger’s words of comfort—but it is pain that offers the more profound lessons, a harsh mistress, yes, but capable of making us more fully human. What we learn from pain, our own or that of others, has the power to bestow such gifts as compassion, understanding, courage, hope, and love.
Of course, we have to be willing to sit in the classroom, listen to the lectures, and embrace the lessons. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Songwriter Kelly Clarkson echoed Nietzsche by singing, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Both the philosopher and the composer are wrong, at least in part. We’ve all known people who, having suffered some terrible trauma, became weaker rather than stronger. They became shrunken versions of themselves, bitter about their lives and their misfortunes.
“What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger” is closer to the mark.
C.S. Lewis famously wrote that “[pain] insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Whatever our religious beliefs, when we hear that megaphone, as we all will, may we find the strength to heed its message, the wisdom to pause and absorb its lessons, and so discover—even in our darkest hours—hope and the sustenance required for our journey forward.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.