Monday, March 3, 2014

The potential that suffering and failure provide

There is, understandably, a lot of resistance met when one encounters suffering and failures in life.  Most, if not all of us, will run from it, and do our best to keep them far from us.  There’s something hardwired in our DNA that gives us the impression that suffering and failures cannot be good for us, and that we will be happy and contented only when they are absent from our lives.  We want to live the “happily ever after” kind of lives that seem to occur in every faerie tale that we have been told as children, and we seem to think that anything bad and evil has to be kept as far from our lives as possible.  After all, whenever we greet one another at festivities and life celebrations like birthdays and weddings, don’t we always wish the celebrant or one another with good words and best wishes?  The underlying and unsaid message seems to be “may you always be enjoying the happiness that does not include any forms of suffering or failures that life often plagues us with”.  Yet, we know that this is far from the truth.  Every life seems to be afflicted with some form of suffering.  Some are so plain and obvious, whilst others are so hidden and silent that only the sufferer really knows the pain of the affliction.

If the reality of suffering and failures is a fact of life for all of us, but like that proverbial elephant in the room which nobody often likes to talk about, the other reality is just as, if not, even more true.  And this is the fact that successes and glories in life have very little to teach us and form us into people whose character have a certain depth to them.  The “feel good” or “happiness” factor may be something that the vast majority of us yearn for in life, but these often also tickle and thrill us for the moment, and leave us longing for the next “high” that these experiences bring, making us adrenalin junkies without even realizing it.  Had a good meal experience in a restaurant?  Let’s trawl the many other food places for an even better one.  Did that experience of being pampered by the masseuse give such exquisite delight?  Do all we can to make that happen again and again.  That night out at the theatre was so magical and flawless that it makes one long for something similar when the next event comes along.  Of course, the social media has also become a catalyst to feed this ‘hunger’ in us, where we post our fantastic experiences, hoping that others will “approve” or “like” us and what we “approve” and “like” ourselves. 

It is not that the need for happiness and joy is necessarily a bad thing.  But we have to realise that the constant and endless pursuit of this in life is something that seldom, if at all, leaves us being people of much depth.  When we are fully aware of the vanity of the endless pursuit of fleeting happy and thrilling experiences, we can enjoy them for the momentary pleasure they provide, and move on in life without hankering for more of the same.  The problem with many of us is that we don’t know when enough is enough, and how to appreciate each joy for what it provides us with, without the need for another similar experience.

What is often left unsaid and underappreciated is the fact that it is the experiences of sufferings and failures, when taken in the right light and attitude, can become for us the basic building blocks of a firm foundation of life. 

I particularly like what American psychologist James Hillman, once said about our humiliations, scars and crosses in life.  Comparing them to the rocks at the bottom of a riverbed, which don’t do much but stay lodged at the bed of the flowing river, they do serve a purpose.  The river that has to take into account the presence of these rocks and the water has to flow around it, perhaps even alter its flow because of their presence.  These rocks are what give character and depth, and yes, even beauty and strength to the river. 

In Luke 24:13-35, we read about the journey or walk to Emmaus.  This wonderful episode has a tonne of spiritual truths about life packed into its 22 verses.  What often escapes us is the statement of Jesus, which has him saying “was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  We are given a sanctifying and redeeming purpose of suffering in this statement, which we must not simply gloss over.  Each time we are given a suffering or when we experience a failure in life,  or when something in life causes us to slow down and look at life with a different set of eyes, and we think we are on the verge of giving up or giving in to despair, we should make it a point to come back to these words of Christ.  The humiliation of the crucifixion was one of the darkest moments of man’s history, but at the same time, it was the gateway through which man is able to attain the hitherto unattainable life of eternal salvation.  Indeed, it was "necessary" yet difficult at the same time.  Because Christ was willing and able to go deep, albeit with a struggle that emerged from his humanity, he came out the other end with a glory that no other ever experienced, and became the conduit for the rest of us sinful humanity. 

Lent is about to begin.  It is for us Catholics a communal and prolonged time of purposefully taking on some form of penance to prepare ourselves for the passion of the Lord.  Taken in the wrong spirit, Lent can easily end up just being a vain exercise of masochism where we take a suffering for the sake of a suffering.  But in the right spirit, Lent allows us to live in a dimension of life that makes us aware of the sufferings of others in the world, and gives us the opportunity to balance our lives where there have been too much attention paid to the body and not enough to the spirit.  It reminds us that though we are people in the world, we are not merely people of the world.  

If we take our sufferings and failures in the shadow of the crucifixion and the resulting resurrection, I believe we too can become minor conduits for ourselves and those who look on our lives for some signs of moral courage. 


  1. Hmmm frLuke, this is so true of my experience ".. that it is the experiences of sufferings and failures, when taken in the right light and attitude, can become for us the basic building blocks of a firm foundation of life."

    When i accept these experiences in my life, and ponder what God is telling/teaching me in each incidence, yes, they become my "building blocks". Turn our sufferings into building blocks. To quote Nicola "Reframe Perception, Reframe Language - The words you use change the way you see, think and act."


  2. Dearest Fr. Luke,

    I caught up with a church friend this week, whom I had a soft spot for as she always has a ready smile for me when she sees me. She showed me a lump she is having since the beginning of the year, and confirmed my foreboding that chemotherapy is needed.

    As I look at her, a deep sense of regret befell me, of the times when we didn't catch up and now as I cling on to her every word, in fact, started missing her already … when I noticed her smile again.

    Her smile, that had initiated our friendship, had never left her face. Her trust and surrender to God expressed blatantly in her smile that shines from her eyes.

    As I reflected on your post and on my encounter with her, I too believe as you said when we embrace our suffering –“...we too can become minor conduits for ourselves and those who look on our lives for some signs of moral courage."

    This sentence speaks so true for her and of course, for you too!
    And I thank God daily for the people who shown by example, of moral courage and inspiration in this secular world we live in. For those who dare do what is right, and not easy, despite the hardship & suffering the choice entails.

    For the heroes who are bearing their crosses with a smile. ;}

    Thank you Fr Luke.
    Praying for you, as always.