On Suffering

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.* Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. – Romans 12:9-12

Brittany Maynard, Who Ended Her Life At 29 To Avoid Mental And Physical Suffering And Pain To Her Loved Ones

Brittany Maynard, Who Ended Her Life At 29 To Avoid Mental And Physical Suffering And Pain To Her Loved Ones

Like the word “suicide,” “suffering” is another word that is used — and valued — very differently. By dying at age 29, Maynard signaled that carrying on while she no longer knew herself was pointless and would only prolong the agony of those who loved her.

She saw no value in suffering.

That may be one reason the right-to-die movement, led by advocacy groups such as Compassion & Choices and others, is so worrisome to many of its opponents. If suffering is optional, then it might also be spiritually meaningless.

That’s a very different perspective than what is taught by many of the world’s religions and philosophies. – Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Brittany Maynard’s Death: Does Suffering Have Spiritual Meaning?”, United Methodist Reporter, Nov. 4, 2014

That the Christian discourse on suffering is both long and detailed; that from Biblical texts through political and liberation theologies of the late 20th century “suffering” was a category that took on a new urgency and focus; that believers have been urged to endure pain and suffering in the name of the faith for nearly two millennia; none of this is beyond dispute.  What is now disputable is whether or not “suffering” is a univocal category at all.  Is asking the question about the “spiritual meaning” of suffering in a case such as Ms. Maynard’s even appropriate, perhaps offensive?

Particularly in the Gospel texts, where Jesus meets people suffering pain and illness and debility, he has compassion upon them and heals them.  In the context of the times, such healing offered these people the opportunity to return to live in community with others.  Sickness was primarily a spiritual condition for Galilean and Judean Jews of the first century.  Those who were ill were not whole, therefore not holy, therefore it was impossible for them to be ritually clean.  Shunned, forced away from any human contact, there was no sense of social compassion whatsoever, until Jesus entered and, as in all things, changed everything.

On the other hand, the suffering to which St. Paul and the Epistle writers, including St. John of Patmos, refer is social rejection, religious persecution, legal incarceration which often included torture.  This was not the pain of a physical ailment that forced one outside the communion of saints.  It was, rather, very real social, cultural, and religious disapprobation for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord.  When St. Paul asks the Roman Christians to “be patient in suffering”, he is both encouraging them in the faith and reminding them what he said in what we call chapter 8 of the same epistle: that the “suffering” we endure in this life is more than worth the reward to come with the immanent return of Jesus Christ and the final establishment of the Divine Kingdom on earth.

To write an entire column about whether or not Ms. Maynard’s decision to end her life rather than suffer, and put her family through the pain of watching her suffer, confuses the meaning of suffering, places demands upon others that is offensive to say the least, and robs Ms. Maynard (as well as others who have made similar decisions) of the dignity she took with her as she died.  Few things are more offensive to me than people insisting that other people endure pain, put their families through pain, and all for the sake of some religious ideal they have misconstrued.  Human suffering is not something to celebrate; it is something to alleviate, in faith and using the best tools at our disposal to do so.

Ms. Maynard did not die in the face of threats to her faith.  She was not being tortured because she refused to recant her confession of faith in the risen Jesus.  She was not attacked and beaten to death because she was a Christian.  She was a young woman whose life would be shortened painfully, including the loss of her sense of her own identity, while her family and loved ones looked on helplessly, enduring their own pain for no purpose and to no end but the end Ms. Maynard chose for herself in a way that brought far less pain, and certainly far less suffering, than months or even years of agony for so many.

Just because religions around the world insist people have to endure pain doesn’t mean it’s right.  Certainly, in this case, Ms. Maynard’s decision was not one rooted in any Christian ideal.  She did not avoid the suffering that comes from living the faith; she avoided the suffering that comes from an illness for which there was no treatment, no cure, no hope of anything.  In many ways, her choice of death, going out before her tumor began to rob her of her ability to enjoy life, was a kind of healing act.  She remains within the community of those who live life, rather than slowly, agonizingly shunned, shunted first to a hospital, then perhaps a nursing home, then finally to hospice care as her body and mind withered away.  While sad, and I’m quite sure her family and friends mourn her death, there is also something of the healing hand of Jesus in the midst of this death.  Neither Ms. Maynard nor her family are socially ostracized because of her illness.  No one loses the most vital connection – human contact and community – because Ms. Maynard has chosen to die rather than live in pain.

To claim that Ms. Maynard’s decision to take her own life ahead of the illness that would be a bit more slow and far less merciful about it in some way robs spiritual meaning from suffering is not only offensive.  It betrays a willingness to sacrifice the good lives of others so that one’s own sense of the meaning of suffering can continue.  It also betrays a refusal to consider changing circumstances, changing understandings and definitions, and distinctions and equivocations in the word “suffering”.  Finally, it takes no thought to assemble quotes from different religions; it takes real faith, real risk, and real thought to move through the event in question and consider the possibility of arriving at a wholly different conclusion, one that does not insult Ms. Maynard, belittle her decision, or insist that others live with pain and die alone so that traditions that have endured for so long continue to be observed.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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