Thursday, May 15, 2014

How Can We Have True Compassion For Those Who Suffer?

William Congden, Crucifixion series
I'm not going to offer my own reflections on such a profound problem. Instead, I have a few striking selections (with notes from me, occasionally, in brackets [ ] ) from a book that is rich in what it offers to both the mind and the heart, by the great and unheralded theologian (and my old friend) Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete. The little book is called God at the Ritz (click the link and buy a copy). The title is both serious and funny, but I'm not going to explain that here. You'll have to get the book to find out.

These thoughts (selected from pp. 81-116) are worth going through, because I think Msgr. Albacete presents an understanding of compassion as "co-suffering" that is essential to how we can really help one another and stand together with one another in solidarity in suffering. This ingredient of "co-suffering," I think, is proper to every gesture of compassion including those that bring relief to the suffering of others.

It's something I want to ponder and develop further, personally as a human being and perhaps also philosophically/theologically. Note that the "audience" for these remarks is not just Christians but all people who search for meaning, who suffer and practice love and compassion:

What is human suffering? Suffering is not the same as pain. Pain is a symptom indicating that something is wrong at one or more of the three levels of human awareness: physical, psychological, and spiritual. [Note: there is an interesting discussion of this point, but the theme is that what distinguishes the core of specifically human suffering is the way it touches a person's identity, the way it introduces a rupture of the person's expectation of the "good-for-myself," or even the presumption of its realization. This rupture, experienced as "against-me," provokes—in the intrinsic reality of human personal suffering—a fundamental and vital question.] 
Suffering occurs when you seek to understand the reason for pain—not the cause of it, but the reason for it—the "ultimate reason" if you will, for "why this should happen." We ask "why?" because suffering breaks our mental schema of how things should be. Suffering tears apart our worldview, our assumptions about life. We ask why in the face of inexplicable imperfection. Asking why drives us beyond our preconceived notions toward something more.
Often, without realizing it, we address our "why" to the Source of meaning. We look for a face that is ultimately responsible for everything. In essence, then, we aren't looking for explanations. We are looking for something else: we are looking for salvation, for redemption. When we suffer, asking "why" moves us toward transcendence.
[This question (why?) is in some way the distinctive form of the experience of human suffering. The question] surges out of the human heart and breaks through all attempts to suppress it. [And, it] opens us to others who are also suffering, thus creating a solidarity among those who suffer. To suffer together means to walk together toward transcendence.
This solidarity is the proper human response to [the] suffering [of others]. This doesn't mean that we "share the pain" of those who suffer. While this phrase is used quite often, I don't think this is possible. Nothing is more intimately personal than the pain of suffering. It is, after all, a wound in our personal identity, and personal identity cannot be shared. Each person is unique and unrepeatable. What we share is the questioning, and thus we suffer with the one who suffers. We "co-suffer" with that person.
The only adequate response when confronted with another person's suffering is co-suffering. It is the only way to respect the suffering of another. Co-suffering affirms the wounded personal identity of the sufferer through our willingness to expose our identity to the questioning provoked by the sufferer's pain. This willingness to share suffering is an act of love. Co-suffering is the way we love the one who suffers.
In our relationship with the one who suffers, we as co-sufferers can impose nothing on the other person. We can only help the other to ask the question "why" by asking it together—that is, by praying together. Praying together with the one who suffers is the just response to the suffering.
The redemption of suffering, as our experience indicates, cannot be found as an "ultimate answer" to a problem: it can only be an event that transforms the drama of suffering into a drama of love and shows love to be more powerful than its denial. The possibility of this event sustains a realistic hope and an unfailing determination to protect and defend human freedom and the dignity of human life.