Vicarious suffering

Over lunch today, I was reading the latest Newsweek; in particular, an article about Pope John Paul II. I know virtually nothing about the Pope and Catholicism, but this article caught my attention, because it has to do in part with the value of suffering. The world looks on, sees the obvious physical precariousness of the Pope, and there are two major and vastly different reactions. The one consistent with most of us in Protestant America is, “Good grief, when will he resign? He can’t do his job!” The other, exemplified in African Catholics, is summed up from this quote in the article: the pope is “a living presence of the very essence of Christianity, which is the cross—and resurrection,”

Suffering and the cross are most definitely NOT the very essence of American Protestant Christianity. We don’t get that the Pope is more than his function. It makes no sense to us that he would have value in suffering, value in BEING, if he can’t perform religious duties. Leadership, even Christian leadership, too often in our minds is about performance, acts, deeds, accomplishments. It’s not about the cross.

In 1996, John Paul II said, “I must lead her with suffering. The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”

This seems right to me. This seems “of God” to me. As much as Catholicism may not “get it right” from my perspective, in the area of suffering we have much to learn from our Roman brothers and sisters. I thought of the little I know about the title of “vicar”, and its relationship to “vicarious”. The Pope stands in the place of Christ. The Pope vicariously suffers with Christ, and is now figuratively doing so vicariously (!), just as Christ suffers. To what extent ought you and I vicariously suffer?

(For further reading, I’ll recommend-as I have MANY times- “Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God” (Marva J. Dawn))

P.S. Interesting sidenote: Cynicism creeps in in interesting places in the article. As the Pope’s condition deteriorates, his subordinates gain stature and power. These will be lost when a new Pope is in place. Perhaps the latest Papal pronouncements about keeping people on life support, even if in a vegetative state, has more to do with subordinates wanting to cling to power than to a holistic life stance…

8 thoughts on “Vicarious suffering

  1. I heard some of this on NPR today, Gregg. They mentioned how he has intentionally kept in the public eye even though he was getting frail and suffering… intentionally because he believes suffering is part of the strength of humanity (or something like that). I was moved… and have often thought similarly. It makes me a bit nervous about what humanity will lose, as we work write illness and weakness out of our genes. Our greatest heroes are always people who have suffered with dignity.I was really impressed that the Pope was willingly representing this view. Thanks for creating space to talk about it.


  2. questions for bruce or gregg: what do you think suffering, or seeing someone suffer, does for people? like, how is it different from watching an olympic athelete achieve greatness or admiring a rock star or gifted political leader? what happens when we experience suffering?


  3. Excellent question. I’ve always been respectful of those who suffer well. And now I have to ask myself why!Some of it is the dignity and strength of character that is maintained even when there is no clear “pay off.” So much of our motivation these days is about gratification… what we’ll get out of it. Athletes are admirable for their skill and even for the effort they put into their task, but not only do the financial payoffs detract from that, but there is also no guarantee that the discipine they show on the field translates to any other part of their life. The sad fact is that usually they are WORSE off the court than a majority of people. Those who suffer well display for us the foundation of humanity, the barest of basics… they cannot hide their frailty or vulnerability. So to face it with dignity and courage is very moving to me. I tend to hide my suffering, and display my strength… even while admiring the humility of one who can share their suffering and a glimpse of what gives us true value as humans… our ability to chooose and our character.Suffering gives us the chance to experience the nobleness of life. It reminds us of what is truly valuable about being human… and how that value can never be taken away. I won’t ever willingly choose suffering, nor wish it upon anyone else. But those who face into it when it comes, I deeply respect and honor.


  4. we-ll, those are good answers, i think. but do you not also think that suffering is a universal experince, a consequence of being alive? i mean, from the tiniest cells in our body to the most complicated social structures in which we participate, there is the constant brutality of survival. not just human nature, but the life of every living thing involves pain and ultimately, death. and during life, survival itself depends on competition, with winners and losers, right?(i have my non-christian hat on now) so what do we make of a religion, gregg, that tells us that submitting to god, who is in charge of all things, involves submitting to suffering? suffering sucks. if god made us with the desire to want to avoid it, why embrace it? why not at least hedge your bet and help yourself all you can and just not bother with it if you don’t have to? what’s the point? why not deny, (rather than celebrate) our weakness ? and bruce, it might be noble to suffer well and even admirable, but many who suffer do so pointlessly, or even foolishly. why should suffering be elevated over the more adaptive trait of selfishness or just raw power? or at the very least, being the most-fit-to-compete would seem to be more admirable than displaying vulnerability, no matter how noble the ideal. why do we value those who are faltering in their experience of life? what gives suffering dignity? why do we have such a natural desire to avoid it, and also sense something so compelling and interesting about it?


  5. Matt asks: “what gives suffering dignity?”I would guess that it is not “suffering” itself that has dignity, but it is the person, and how they choose to respond to it. There are plenty of people who do not “rise to the occasion” to suffer with dignity.Personally, I am attracted to those who “suffer well” because of what it reminds me about my humanity: that I am not just my body. That there are things more important than ease. That the reality of my life is grounded not in my ability to be productive or beautiful. That my value and dignity come from something separate from my ability to be a productive member of society. Those who are vulnerable with their suffering, who share their struggle with it while also endeavoring to not be bitter about it… they remind me that the values of our society are short-term and shallow. My identity and my value need to be drawn from the fact that God chose me, God values me, God created me… even if I don’t measure up to standards set by society.And “why do we have such a natural desire to avoid it, and also sense something so compelling and interesting about it?” I experience this in my own life! I do not want to suffer! I want to have a life that is easy…In fact, I have not had a lot of suffering in my life. And I struggle to be vulnerable or share my weaknesses. Yet, I know I am missing something when i only present my strength… it is from our weakness that we we really connect with each other. Seeing someone suffer with dignity reminds me and calls me to be more open with others.


  6. i really like that answer, like an elusive sweet note that was hit upon. but, bruce, do we not also find valuable connection with people in other ways than suffering? how is the unique connection in suffering and weakness distinct from the conection in, say, true friendship or maternal love, which also affirm the value of persons solely for what/who they are? what does suffering evoke from us that other forms of experience cannot?how about a multiple choice pop quiz? ( for anyone )when i experience suffering, i feel toward god:a. angerb. fearc. confusiond. (inexplicably) intimacye. all of the abovef. none of the above ( supply a word)


  7. Matt, the closest I have ever been to suffering myself is maybe nothing compared to what others have been through. When I read your pop quiz just now, the thing that came to mind was this: When I experienced suffering, God felt toward me…a) love b) compassion c) deep concernd) intimacye) all of the aboveEarlier you asked ‘what happens when we experience suffering?’ In my experience, suffering cuts through the crud that separates us from God and from each other – but only if we let it. Bruce said that people who suffer can’t hide their frailty and vulnerability but I think that’s not entirely true. Most people hide their suffering very well. It’s when we choose to let others enter into it with us that we both receive a gift. Of course there are other ways to connect with people but most of them aren’t as close to the heart so deep intimacy is less likely. The thing that gives it dignity is not the act of suffering. Dignity comes from being willing and able to embrace both life and God and despite it.


  8. “do we not also find valuable connection with people in other ways than suffering? …what does suffering evoke from us that other forms of experience cannot?”I agree absolutely, Matt. Suffering is only one way of many, that we connect with others, experience vulnerabilty, discover deeper levels of humanity.Maybe something unique to suffering is the blatant choice it offers us! It’s easy to be happy and have dignity when motivated by love and happy children. It’s a tough act of the will to pursue dignity and joy when dealing with suffering.Another differnce is that our society tells us we don’t really HAVE to suffer anymore, that we don’t deserve to suffer and shouldn’t have to develop the skills to remain strong in the midst of it. Science and money will remove the awful situation of suffering… or so we’re told. (Not only is that not happening, but the second lie is bad too…that suffering is “awful.”)As to your quiz… I’d take E, “all of the above.” And try not to feel guilty about any of them as I phased through them (and back and forth too!)Bruce


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