Coming to Terms: Suffering

by Catherine Fournier

Suffering is all about potential. It is potentially beneficial or potentially detrimental. It offers the potential for growth, for sacrifice and redemption. It also holds the potential for destruction, for selfishness and loss.

How you use the potential of suffering depends on how you view life. If you believe in eternal life for an immortal soul created by a loving God, you are more likely to see suffering as an positive opportunity for redemption and reparation. If, on the other hand, you see life as independent of a higher power, based solely on what is experienced here and now, you will tend to see suffering as an unwelcome experience that interferes with living. Can one viewpoint inform the other? Is there any common ground for discussion?

My husband's family introduced me to the Sunday evening sport of debate. Someone, usually an uncle, would propose a topic. That the theory of evolution was contrary to the teachings of the Church was a favorite. My mother-in-law, who had little patience with her brother-in-law's eccentricities, invariably jumped to contradict him. The rest of the family would grin and lean back in their chairs to listen. To my amazement, on many evenings it eventually became obvious that both were actually in agreement.

"No, no," one would insist, "Evolution means that things change, and human nature doesn't change."

"What!" the other would splutter, "Evolution means that everything in the material world develops, of course man's body has changed - look how many people don't have appendixes! Souls don't come into it."

Regardless of the topic, often the only difference between positions were their terms of reference, their definitions. What one called change, the other called development. Both would vehemently deny it, each insisting that their viewpoint was correct and that the words had nothing to do with it.

I encountered a variation on this trouble when I tried to talk to my own family about marriage, about contraception, about euthanasia, about education, about almost everything. I may as well have been speaking a different language. There too, I eventually realized that whatever our differences of opinion and belief might have been, the real problem was with the words. They were speaking (and hearing) the language of the secular world, and I was using the language of Truth. The words were the same; the meanings were vastly different.

This problem lies at the heart of many of today's public debates. Though frequently unrecognized or denied, discussions of modern versus traditional marriage, dignified death, quality of life, pro-life versus pro-choice, freedom, love, all are as much about the definitions of the terms as they are about the ideas. The argument about pro-choice or pro-abortion versus pro-life or anti-abortion is a notable exception. Here, the terms of reference are continually under examination, because everyone recognizes once defined, they plainly reveal the real issue.

Knowing this, it becomes important to understand what each person means when they use a word and to define your own terms in every discussion. And I've found that many times, when I clearly define the words, the argument melts away. We agree after all. Most people will say they are 'pro-choice' because it sounds open-minded and positive, but are appalled when confronted with the reality of abortion.

This is what makes evangelizing to your neighbour worthwhile, that many times the difference is simply due to a genuine misunderstanding, a confusion about the terms of reference. But what do you do when discussion reveals that there is no misunderstanding? When, as in the understanding of suffering, there is complete agreement of all the terms of reference and a chasm between beliefs?

This letter, the last in a series sent to me discussing the Vatican's position on the morning-after pill being given to Kosovar refugees, is a case in point.

"For me death is not the worst thing in life. Pain and suffering are. For me it is the least worst situation for abortion to be performed rather than bring an unwanted child to this already over populated world. A child whose life is doomed to be miserable as is already the case of millions of them. The Vatican and the pope are saying things that in my eyes are the true definition of sin if there ever was one."

Once he had stated it so clearly there was little left to discuss. We were both a little shocked to realize how completely we disagreed on so fundamental a point. We ended the discussion there, both, I think, feeling sorry for the other.

Pursuing a discussion when it is obvious that the real issue is not a difference of opinion, a misunderstanding of terms, misinformation, or ignorance but a deeply and sincerely held belief is no longer evangelization. It's browbeating, and about as effective. Rather than reaching minds, you are far more likely to close them out of sheer annoyance, and delay their heart's readiness to listen to God. (If it was time for them to listen, you wouldn't still be arguing, you'd be answering questions.)

Instead, these situations are an opportunity for prayer, for offering up into God's loving hands to handle in His time, and to bring some good out of what appears to us as bad. But then, so is suffering.

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