Friday, February 10, 2012

The Third Purpose of Pain

When I was very small—only about eight or nine—my mother and I stopped to eat lunch at a McDonald’s. I remember the day very well; we sat outside at one of the red tables, mom eating her burger and me my chicken nuggets. Across from us was a little girl with her mother. She was just my age and was enjoying the same meal as I. However, unlike me, she did not possess the same amount of fingers as most human beings. She only had four fingers between two hands, and if ten chicken nuggets weren’t enough of a challenge, a container of barbecue sauce was thrown into the mix. I tried not to stare, I really did, but I could not keep myself from watching as she struggled to eat. Picking up one piece of meat, maneuvering it carefully to dip it into the sauce…the process was painfully slow. Her mother’s face was very sad as she watched her daughter strive and fail at what I myself was doing so easily across the way (or maybe she was sad because I was staring…). However, it is the little girl’s face which I will never forget. She was so cheerful. “Oops! I dropped my chicken nugget!” she laughed once, undaunted by the simple yet oh-so-complicated task before her. A pianist, I couldn’t imagine lacking even one of my fingers, much less six, but she was so composed, taking it all in stride.

I did not say one word to her. I do not know her name. But to this day, when I think of perseverance, I see that girl’s face. This is not an isolated experience, and I do not think it is just I who has moments such as these. Often do we learn things from the trials and sufferings of others. It is, after all, the third purpose of pain:

-To teach to others, through our own example, virtues and other lessons which
will help them become better people.

While the first purpose is obvious, and the second acceptable, not very many people recognize this third purpose and fewer still learn to appreciate it. In a materialistic and essentially selfish world, is it really to be wondered at? No one thinks of other people when they themselves are suffering, and many people are so horrified at the thought of suffering that they can only pity those whom they should be learning from (I plead guilty to this). But this third purpose of pain is the most important, for the very same reason most fail to see it:

It extends beyond the self.

It isn’t about us; the picture is much bigger than that. It is about the rest of the world. I saw that girl for all of ten minutes, and never saw her again. She will never know that I remember her; I doubt she remembers me. But she taught my little self something that day that will be with me and help me for the rest of my life. Who knows how many people you can touch, and have touched, by “suffering well” (as St. Therese puts it)? Not a single person may have ever said a word to you about it, but you could have touched more people than there are stars. It’s like those Liberty Mutual commercials… What could be less pointless?

And what if no one sees, you ask? (This is one of my favorite things about being Catholic) All is not lost. Jesus suffered. He was beaten with the most brutal torture devices, nailed to a cross, and left to suffocate to death. God Himself suffered and died. Jesus redeemed suffering and made it redemptive. Not only does this mean that suffering in itself cannot be evil (because God assented to it and did it Himself) but it means that everyone who suffers reflects Christ. Every time we suffer, we are united with Christ on the Cross, and His mission to save souls becomes our mission. This isn’t only accomplished when someone sees and takes our example. It occurs in the silence of our hearts and homes, locked in the deepest corners of our rooms and minds. We can help others—without their even knowing it—by uniting ourselves with the Crucified Christ and earning graces for them. We can suffer for the sake of living people, the conversion of sinners, the souls in Purgatory… United with Christ on the Cross, we assist in His redeeming mission. Even if no one sees it.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are
wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the
church.” –Colossians, 1:24

Next time I feel burdened by trials, my pain becomes unbearable, and I feel that God cannot be the all-good and all-loving God we believe Him to be, I’m going to grab this picture and look Him in the eye…

…and remind myself that no suffering is a pointless evil.

What are you going to do?