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Principles of pain and joy

Fr. Francis Ongkingco



“HOW come pain and suffering last longer than happiness and joy?” This was my niece’s text to me one evening. I replied that I’ve actually been thoughtfully doodling on the subject matter for quite some time now. After her message, I figured that I had to write down some ideas, even though brief, about her interesting query.

There’s just so much to reflect and write about something that has been around since man began asking himself about the origins of good and evil or of life and death. Pain and happiness are intertwined human realities, and our experience of one always has something to say about the other.

Pain and happiness and their other related vital human situations (i.e. joy-suffering, sickness-health, and ultimately life-death) are not only daily human dramas to be contemplated or lived. They are humanizing realities, that is, they are invitations to discover how they can enrich and perfect ourselves more.

Happiness, the possession of a desired good, is often our default mode. Our wills naturally tend to seek and possess happiness. We look for it in various forms, but above all that which will contribute to greater personal identity, emotional and psychological stability and a moderate material security. We are even ready trod upon arduous paths if only to secure these lifetime goods.

Now pain is quite another story. Our attitude towards difficulties is the opposite of our attraction to the good. We avoid, fear it and even reject and fight anything that may threaten our well-being. No one with right reason, however, would want trials for their own sake except when they are the inevitable choice and means to comprehend or possess a greater good (e.g. studying for an exam, going on a diet to lose weight, etc.)

What we have said so far about human joy and suffering has been elaborated with great skill and depth by persons like St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, Blessed John Paul II, Dostoyevsky, C.S. Lewis and many others. But here I’m more interested in answering my niece’s question which I rephrase as: ‘Why can’t we suffer for as long as we enjoy things, and enjoy things for as long as we endure pain or trials?

For the blessings of life we often speak of savoring the flavor of a dish, treasuring a friendship, maximizing success and seizing the opportunity. We react thus because we know that good things have a short shelf-life. Our nature, as well, sets physical limits to our indulgence: the tongue gets satiated, the tummy gets full, our eyes grow tired and ears become dull.

For life’s trials, however, we speak of accepting and embracing pain, weathering a storm, and abandoning ourselves to the physical limits of our nature. These expressions can only go so far as to console but they cannot in any way lessen pain nor shorten its term. Thus, the smallest splinter can sting a finger for a day, a migraine can stab our head for weeks, cancer and similar illnesses can torture us for years. Before such trying experiences, Fulton Sheen amusingly concluded that up to now, anesthesia may very well still be man’s greatest invention.

The prevailing duration of pain and suffering over the brevity of our enjoyment of what is pleasurable must reveal something about the value and meaning of suffering. Undoubtedly, the joyful moments of life have an essential time and function for man. They are rewarding moments that reassure and fulfill man, but their nature and above all their short span of duration contribute very little to the growth of virtue. Sometimes, when such gratifying moments are exceeded, they may even deteriorate a person’s integrity (e.g. getting drunk, over-eating or sleeping) and jeopardize what one has gained through hard work and sacrifice.

On the other hand, the prolonged nature of suffering, pain, illness and moral angst that we cannot even verbalize, offers some interesting advantages because of the time-frame in which the person must embrace these realities. Within this ‘period of vulnerability’, the person first gradually learns to accept his own limitations, and realize that it is –even though it is hard and may take some time to acknowledge– part of one’s life and that it is an activity that must be faced and worked out.

In the case of illness, for example, Victor Frankl says, “it is given to me as a task. I have the responsibility of doing something about it. (…) The real result of suffering is a process of maturing. (…) This maturing is based on the fact that the human being attains an interior freedom despite one’s exterior dependence on others.” (The Suffering Man, 1987, p. 255) Man, like a maturing fruit in time, is able to discover another noble way to grow in his freedom.

This new horizon for the person, within the duration of any form of pain or trial, becomes an anvil of virtue. It is precisely in this context of weakness that one is invited to discover a new manner of exercising his freedom: to embrace something arduous and even some times debilitating. Our physical and moral weaknesses become a dynamic occasion to live another feature of being human.

Moreover, within the period and nature of his trials, man discovers yet another treasure: “he can only face suffering, that is, to suffer with meaning, if he suffers for something or someone. Suffering as an end in itself is meaningless. (…) To face it, one must transcend it (…) and suffering for a cause finds its greatest meaning in sacrifice.” (Ibid.) And this is why the length of time we suffer is essential, not because we enjoy suffering itself, but because of a cause or goal, which towards which our suffering steers us.

Perhaps, up to this point I may have only managed to scribble a set of loose thoughts. But as I close this essay, it may suffice to say that suffering’s long duration becomes a constant reminder that the enduring happiness we long for cannot be contained in this finite existence. The period of suffering for a cause, therefore, is meant to prepare us for a joy somewhere (in Heaven) which can be possessed and indulged in fully and eternally. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (Jn 3:16)”

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