THE WORLD OF HUMAN SUFFERING
5. Even though in its subjective dimension, as a personal fact contained within man’s concrete and unrepeatable interior, suffering seems almost inexpressible and not transferable, perhaps at the same time nothing else requires as much as does suffering, in its “objective reality”, to be dealt with, meditated upon, and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and the answers sought. It is evident that it is not a question here merely of giving a description of suffering. There are other criteria which go beyond the sphere of description, and which we must introduce when we wish to penetrate the world of human suffering.
Pain, because it is so intrinsically personal, and in a certain sense, incommunicable, therefore has about it a sense of “unreality,” especially when considered from the obsessively objective perspective of modern science. Yet in another sense it is more real than (almost) anything else, precisely because it does penetrate to the heart of what it means to be a person.
Medicine, as the science and also the art of healing, discovers in the vast field of human sufferings the best known area, the one identified with greater precision and relatively more counterbalanced by the methods of “reaction” (that is, the methods of therapy). Nonetheless, this is only one area. The field of human suffering is much wider, more varied, and multi-dimensional. Man suffers in different ways, ways not always considered by medicine, not even in its most advanced specializations. Suffering is something which is still wider than sickness, more complex and at the same time still more deeply rooted in humanity itself. A certain idea of this problem comes to us from the distinction between physical suffering and moral suffering. This distinction is based upon the double dimension of the human being and indicates the bodily and spiritual element as the immediate or direct subject of suffering. Insofar as the words “suffering” and “pain”, can, up to a certain degree, be used as synonyms, physical suffering is present when “the body is hurting” in some way, whereas moral suffering is “pain of the soul”. In fact, it is a question of pain of a spiritual nature, and not only of the “psychological” dimension of pain which accompanies both moral and physical suffering The vastness and the many forms of moral suffering are certainly no less in number than the forms of physical suffering. But at the same time, moral suffering seems as it were less identified and less reachable by therapy.
Human suffering may be embodied in the physical, but it also transcends it. Physicians can heal the body. Psychologists can even help heal the soul to some degree. Yet the root of suffering always remains outside the reach of medicine.
6. Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering. Let us quote from the books of the Old Testament a few examples of situations which bear the signs of suffering, and above all moral suffering: the danger of death(5), the death of one’s own children(6) and, especially, the death of the firstborn and only son(7); and then too: the lack of offspring(8), nostalgia for the homeland(9), persecution and hostility of the environment(10), mockery and scorn of the one who suffers(11), loneliness and abandonment(12); and again: the remorse of conscience(13), the difficulty of understanding why the wicked prosper and the just suffer(14), the unfaithfulness and ingratitude of friends and neighbours(15); and finally: the misfortunes of one’s own nation(16).
In treating the human person as a psychological and physical “whole”, the Old Testament often links “moral” sufferings with the pain of specific parts of the body: the bones(17), kidneys(18), liver(19), viscera(20), heart(21). In fact one cannot deny that moral sufferings have a “physical” or somatic element, and that they are often reflected in the state of the entire organism.
In contrast to some understandings, the Christian view of the human person maintains that he is both revealed by and yet is more than his body. This “more than” is not independent of the body, but is the source of its meaning. Indeed, one formula calls the soul the “form” of the body. This means that mental or spiritual suffering is closely connected with physical suffering, sometimes to the point of bringing it into being where it would not otherwise exist.
7. As we see from the examples quoted, we find in Sacred Scripture an extensive list of variously painful situations for man. This varied list certainly does not exhaust all that has been said and constantly repeated on the theme of suffering by the book of the history of man (this is rather an “unwritten book”), and even more by the book of the history of humanity, read through the history of every human individual.
It can be said that man suffers whenever he experiences any kind of evil. In the vocabulary of the Old Testament, suffering and evil are identified with each other. In fact, that vocabulary did not have a specific word to indicate “suffering”. Thus it defined as ” evil” everything that was suffering(22). Only the Greek language, and together with it the New Testament (and the Greek translations of the Old Testament), use the verb * = “I am affected by …. I experience a feeling, I suffer”; and, thanks to this verb, suffering is no longer directly identifiable with (objective) evil, but expresses a situation in which man experiences evil and in doing so becomes the subject of suffering. Suffering has indeed both a subjective and a passive character (from “patior”). Even when man brings suffering on himself, when he is its cause, this suffering remains something passive in its metaphysical essence.
Even that suffering which man causes for himself makes him, not only one who inflicts suffering, but one who is the victim of suffering. This victimhood finds its culmination on the Cross, when Christ became both Priest and Victim, the instrument of our salvation.
This does not however mean that suffering in the psychological sense is not marked by a specific “activity”. This is in fact that multiple and subjectively differentiated “activity” of pain, sadness, disappointment, discouragement or even despair, according to the intensity of the suffering subject and his or her specific sensitivity. In the midst of what constitutes the psychological form of suffering there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer.
The “activity” of suffering is interior, and common to all, yet it is also different for each person because of our many and varied constitutions.
Thus the reality of suffering prompts the question about the essence of evil: what is evil?
This questions seems, in a certain sense, inseparable from the theme of suffering. The Christian response to it is different, for example, from the one given by certain cultural and religious traditions which hold that existence is an evil from which one needs to be liberated. Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator and proclaims the good of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he a ought”—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it.
Unlike Buddhism, for example, Christianity does not hold that suffering is exclusively the result of egotistical desire. Rather, it holds that there are real goods which are justly to be desired, and deprivation or distortion of these goods (like food, freedom, and love) is the cause of suffering.
Thus, in the Christian view, the reality of suffering is explained through evil, which always, in some way, refers to a good.
This distortion or privation of good is what we mean by evil. The idea is familiar enough: he evil of gluttony is a distortion of the proper desire for food. And the greater the good that is being distorted, the greater an evil it is.
8. In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific “world” which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him. This world of suffering, divided into many, very many subjects, exists as it were “in dispersion”. Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that a world”, but at the same time” that world” is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity. Parallel with this, however, is the interhuman and social dimension. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists “in dispersion”, at the same time it contains within itself a. singular challenge to communion and solidarity. We shall also try to follow this appeal in the present reflection.
Human suffering can be the cause of isolation from others because of its unrepeatable interiority. Yet when entered into with love, it can be a way of joining one’s interior life to others. The Cross stands as God’s entrance into solidarity with us where we are most fragile. And because of the Cross, we can join ourselves in solidarity with His weakness, which is greater than any human strength.
Considering the world of suffering in its personal and at the same time collective meaning, one cannot fail to notice the fact that this world, at some periods of time and in some eras of human existence, as it were becomes particularly concentrated. This happens, for example, in cases of natural disasters, epidemica, catastrophes, upheavals and various social scourges: one thinks, for example, of a bad harvest and connected with it – or with various other causes – the scourge of famine.
One thinks, finally, of war. I speak of this in a particular way. I speak of the last two World Wars, the second of which brought with it a much greater harvest of death and a much heavier burden of human sufferings. The second half of our century, in its turn, brings with it—as though in proportion to the mistakes and transgressions of our contemporary civilization—such a horrible threat of nuclear war that we cannot think of this period except in terms of an incomparable accumulation of sufferings, even to the possible self-destruction of humanity. In this way, that world of suffering which in brief has its subject in each human being, seems in our age to be transformed—perhaps more than at any other moment—into a special “world”: the world which as never before has been transformed by progress through man’s work and, at the same time, is as never before in danger because of man’s mistakes and offences.
Human suffering has always been a reality, and yet in particular times and places it reaches greater dimensions. And with modern advances in technology, the threat of war to create suffering on a mass scale is greater than ever before.