The Dignity in Human Suffering

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The following was a college essay written by Maria FloresIt has been edited and approved by Madeleine Sanders. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

Maria Flores

Regardless of popular demographic category such as gender, religion, or race, every person subscribes to a common belief in the universal search for happiness. Too often we believe that happiness is simply the absence of suffering. As we continue through this Lenten season, as Catholics, we are called to look beyond our circumstances of suffering, recognizing that even are smallest sufferings here on earth can be united to Christ crucified, for His greater glory.

Suffering must be examined, for, as it plays a central role in the one’s attainment of happiness, it is correspondingly a main concern in Christian and psychological areas respectively aiming to alleviate people from their sins and psychological problems. In Christianity, suffering is viewed as something to be offered and united to the crucified Jesus Christ and thereby attain eternal life.

The Church places greater emphasis on an inherent human worth and dignity despite any characterizing capabilities. Therefore, Catholicism proposes a different way from that of psychology for finding happiness in the midst of suffering. It introduces a third coping method which includes the acceptance of one’s current state of suffering. From a theological perspective, one can effectively choose to undergo suffering, even self-inflicted suffering if it is directed towards the higher purpose of a unity with Jesus Christ. The approach proposed by Catholicism can however,  be accepted by psychology, as it offers secondary benefits alongside its primary intrinsic benefit of union with Jesus.

I believe that the Church’s view on suffering is more greatly conducive to the betterment of the human person than that of psychology, for if happiness is not simply the feeling of pleasure, then coping should likewise focus on more than the eradication of pain—pleasure’s counterpart—to include the whole person. Furthermore, secular psychology has adopted an attitude of optimism, whereas the Catholic church emphasizes hope. The difference between hope and optimism is consistent with the idea that suffering should not necessarily be immediately eliminated. Hope, for example, is inseparable from the virtue of fortitude as it results from an assurance of future release from one’s current labors. It implies the notion of struggle. Moreover, unlike optimism, which does not allow acknowledgement of the real degree of hardship, hope is rooted in reality. While doctors may promise release from pain, for example, and have the medicinal means to carry out their promise, the result is the patients’ numbing to the reality of their pain. Contrarily, those who undergo their pain have proportional reason to aspire for a more comfortable state.

Psychology’s incomplete view of suffering effectively idolizes it, as it renders levels of pain the deciding factor in the patient’s response to illness. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, does not attribute as much emphasis on suffering, to the point that regardless of the amount of discomfort experienced and even despite the meaning and value which the Church comparatively ascribes to righteous endurance of suffering, the patient’s inherent dignity is the core influencing factor underlying any course of action. It accordingly regards euthanasia as deplorable under any circumstance.

Such heavy emphasis on human suffering is due to impending death. For Christians, death determines eternal bliss or eternal hell. Therefore, the way in which one lives his earthly life becomes exceedingly important. The Church’s confrontational view of suffering does not imply that one should refrain from mourning death. This view is, again, in opposition to that of modern psychology. Despite the Christians’ belief in the afterlife and the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus (the promise of which can alleviate some grief), suffering is completely unnatural from the Christian perspective. Catholics believe that ever since God created man “in the beginning [of time],” He intended for them to live immortally in union with Him (Gn 1:1). However, as a result of original sin, humanity has now introduced temporal death as precursor to the afterlife. Because evil is a lack (according to the Church’s privatio boni axiom), death is a lack of life and is therefore unnatural. Jesus Christ was crucified as a result of sin and became sin itself in order to open the doors to eternal life again (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus, death has intrinsic to it a mournful denotation and must be grieved. It is, in fact, not a part of life.

Happiness is not necessarily contingent on the presence of suffering, as, for example, one does not experience joy from seeing a flower solely because he was previously depressed. However, the examination of suffering provides insight into the concrete manifestation of people’s state of happiness because of its ubiquity in today’s society and its corresponding relevance to psychology and the Catholic Church. Psychology’s limited view of suffering as something to be removed at all costs effectually minimizes the value of human life to the mere experience of pleasure.  This is why it is so vital that Catholicism’s ceaseless support for each person’s inherent dignity and worth be echoed and implemented by psychology in secular terms and with the support of empirical evidence, thereby encountering suffering in a more natural, realistic and hopeful light.

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