Puzzling Question About Pain
In a gathering that Pope Francis had with young people at the University of Santo Tomas when he visited the Philippines in January 2015, the Pontiff faced a tough question from a twelve-year-old girl. With all simplicity, the girl asked the Holy Father why does God let children suffer?
Paraphrasing the question of that little girl and applying it in our own case, we may find ourselves reckoning with the same question: Why suffer? I think the question has struck a very familiar chord to each one of us, young and old. I guess by living in this imperfect world filled with imperfect people, nobody is spared from pain. Common experience demonstrates the harsh truth that we are all familiar with suffering. The gravity may vary across people, but nonetheless, the same inevitable reality holds true. And the suffering is in all forms: physical, emotional, socio-economic, psychological, moral and spiritual. By this vein, pain acts as one of the great equalizers in the world. Neither money, fame, talents, nor even virtues can exempt people from it.
I was a witness to the hunger that some vocational students from my previous NGO work had to bear because they did not have a spare penny to buy for their meals. I have encountered people who have lost their loved ones because of murder, shoot-outs, illness at a young age, and suicide. I have seen people battling with deadly diseases, and how these ailments made them wither until they succumbed to death eventually. I have known people who are embattled morally, psychologically or spiritually, and sometimes, the intangible pain can be even more painful. For my own case, I also have my own portion of pain that made me grope in the dark.
More often than not, when we try to grapple with pain, we associate it with the absence of goodness or evil. In moments like this, the perpetual query of man regarding the existence of God may come fiercely to the fore. The puzzling question resounds ever more in the face of pain. There are these infamous questions of “So where is God?” and “Where is God when we needed Him the most?”
The Elusiveness of the Question
These questions are outright difficult to resolve. That is why in that same gathering, the Holy Father answered the little girl with this statement, “She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer and she wasn’t even able to express it in words but in tears.” Furthermore, the Pope added that the nucleus of the question of the girl almost does not have a reply.
This question on pain draws well the elusiveness of religion, so to speak. Religion could offer solace in times of mourning, but it is not its primary job. In his reckoning with his own pain after the loss of his wife, C.S. Lewis expressed “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
Our questions about pain are truly hard to reckon with especially when we, men and women, look at ourselves and find that inside of us is a human being with a “bleeding heart”. Each one of us has a patchwork of sentiments (love-hate, courage-fear, passion-apathy, etc). And sometimes, no matter how we rationalize the scenarios or how hard we try to look for answers even in our prayers, the events just don’t make sense. We feel the pain so much. I think that C.S. Lewis has verbalized it well, quoting him thus: “Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain. It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on (my italics for emphasis).”
These questions that we may have pointing to pain are both philosophical and pragmatic. Philosophical because the questions mandate us to delve into our ultimate end or destination; hence, these questions are also called “teleological” (“telos” signifies end). And pragmatic because we do not need to be philosophers to have the right to ask these questions. Daily exposure to good and evil is enough to attain an access to these queries.
It is puzzling that men have to suffer when they are meant to meet happiness in this world, in spite of the fact that Utopia on Earth is impossible. The response to this question of human suffering goes beyond human reason. The quest inevitably involves man’s examination of himself and his destiny.
For one, the root of our angst in the midst of pain is perhaps the unfortunate reality of having to face point blank with our limitations: of not being able to do the things we want to do; of experiencing utmost lethargy and exhaustion; of having no control over our body in the face of a progressive disease; of not being able to see again a loved one again after his/her demise; of being misunderstood because of differences in character, political or religious affiliation, or simply because of the hardness of the heart; of encountering an incomprehensible reality (for instance, of not being able to understand the existence of man, of life, and of the world); of being in an existential dilemma or an identity crisis; and the list goes on. In the words of Charles Malik, it pertains to the natural tragedy “whereby there is ruthless destruction of possibilities on every decision and choice”, and this has become the “ultimate ground of his (pertaining to man in general) anguish”. It is to discover that there are limitations that may make us in pain.
Man in Pursuit of Himself
However, in spite of the pain we are experiencing, or perhaps by means of it, we are able to become who we are. We become more of ourselves – a being both human and divine, a being both emotional and rational, a being both animal and spiritual. By believing that we are meant for something much higher – that we are not a result of a biological accident, not just creatures that are simply meant to die, not beings that were just created by a Supreme Being but left to ourselves alone – we then open the door to our redemption. In the primitiveness or darkness of life, we are able to come to terms with ourselves, with our fellows, and with our life. To say that there is a purpose to our suffering may do us well. The likes of Helen Keller and Victor Frankl have achieved a remarkable degree of self-awareness and sense of purpose by virtue of their experiences of human limitations and abominable experiences. Frankl encapsulated it beautifully in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails the way, the way in which he takes up his cross gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances to add deeper meaning to his life.” But nonetheless, even if we are not able to reckon with our pain easily, may we let it by, confront it, and hopefully, later on, we become the people we ought to be.
Written by Maria Pilar M. Lorenzo, a former intern at the WYA Asia Pacific office
This blog entry was adopted from CROSSROADS, a recently launched book of the author about the crossroads where God and the youth can meet. E-mail the author at email@example.com to purchase a copy of the book.