“Why do bad things happen to good people?” This is a question that has been pondered in one way or another for centuries. The philosophical and theological extrapolations on the topic are immense, and the psychological and sociological components add an even more complex twist to decipher the meaning of life in the context of suffering. It was for more than a decade that I worked with a support group for individuals and families coping with a life threatening illness. The question was posed many times in one capacity or another, “Why is God doing this to me (or my loved one)?”
I became a student of suffering by necessity, not by choice. Being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25 provided an opportunity to learn some things I would have never learned in textbooks alone. The awareness of my mortality at such an early age shaped my adult life in a way that I could have never imagined. There was a cycle of fear, anger, bitterness, resentment toward healthy people, and a whole list of other emotions that I need not elucidate. Suffice it to say that it took quite a while for me to come around to seeing anything positive in this experience we call suffering.
I remember being in the hospital and looking out the window at the rest of civilization with contempt. I could see the Missouri River flowing by and I felt that was a depiction of my life. Life was flowing by and I was not in control of where I was going. I watched the people walking by on the sidewalk and was enraged at their lack of concern for my well-being. It was incomprehensible as to how life outside the hospital walls could keep going on without me. To put it mildly, I did not take up my cross willingly.
More than half of my life has now been lived as a cancer survivor. One of the greatest gifts that I finally received through this experience was the virtue of empathy. I know what it is to hurt, to suffer. It has enhanced my personal life and it clearly has affected the way I minister to others who are hurting. This is not the path of learning that I would have chosen for myself, but I am convinced that it is a path allowed by God in my journey toward understanding, and hopefully, holiness. The learning did not come quickly or easily, but it continues to grow deeper with the passing of years.
In the last quarter of a century I have had the privilege to enter into relationships with many individuals and families coping with serious illnesses. Some have recovered, some have succumbed to the battle, and others are still maintaining the fight. The one thing that each relationship has demonstrated to me is that these are sacred moments. There is an opportunity to encounter God in the midst of the pain and suffering. It may not always be easy to recognize those opportunities when one is in the midst of the challenges, but they are present nonetheless.
Although World Day of the Sick may focus our attention on physical suffering, it does not diminish the fact that many people are suffering from mental, emotional and spiritual ailments as well. Broken relationships between spouses have brought an abundance of suffering to innumerable homes, and the ripple effect is detrimental to the lives of a multitude of children who bear the burden of this rampant discord in our culture. The economic downturn and subsequent job losses has affected a large percentage of households and caused serious mental and emotional anxiety. There simply is no shortage of pain and suffering in contemporary society.
If you are currently in the midst of serious suffering and pain right now, I hope you find strength in knowing that the Church is praying for you in a very significant way on this Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes. For you and your loved ones I simply offer this prayer from the Rite of the Anointing of the Sick.
“God of compassion, you take every family under your care and know our physical and spiritual needs. Transform our weakness by the strength of your grace and confirm us in your covenant so that we may grow in faith and love. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”