Sunday, November 11, 2012

Handling Suffering

I recently attended a conference on Mystagogy, which is a process of examining life, Scripture, and Sacred Tradition to understand the meaning and the message God wants us to receive out of it all. During the conference one of the speakers, Diana, related a story about signing up for a walking tour through Yosemite national park. She talked about the fact that during the tour, the park ranger took time to point out a pile of excrement by the side of the trail. To her untrained eyes, it was just a heap of poop. To the ranger, though, it was a sign of an unseen reality – it meant a bear was nearby. Suffering is that pile of poop on the trail of life – it points at an unseen reality. That reality is the existence of sin and the evil that sin creates.

There is something in the human heart that knows that suffering is wrong, that the world isn’t supposed to be like this. Our bodies are wired to avoid pain and suffering because they are indicators that something is going wrong, that our lives or limbs might even be in danger. This instinct to avoid suffering grows even stronger when it comes to our children. We naturally want to protect them from any suffering.

As a parent, the Catholic Church agrees that suffering is not supposed to happen. The world was not meant to be this way. It is this way is due to the existence of sin and the evil that sin creates. Like the park ranger who taught Diana and her husband about the meaning of the poop so that they could avoid a potentially life threatening encounter with a bear, the Church teaches her children the meaning of suffering and what to do when they encounter it.

As parents learning to parent from Holy Mother Church, we must likewise teach our children that suffering is not intended to be punative in nature, but rather is meant to be instructive. Once the lesson imparted by suffering is learned, the suffering ceases to be suffering and can be transformed into joy. Once Diana understood the meaning of that poop, she knew which direction NOT to go and was able to experience the joys of gazing at the spectacular views provided on the tour.

Suffering is Instructive

When I was a very young child, my mother spent a great deal of time in the kitchen because she liked to cook. Since I enjoyed her company and wanted to be with her, I spent time in the kitchen as well. My mother warned me not to touch the hot stove, but it wasn’t until I burned myself and experienced suffering that I understood why. My decision to disobey my mother resulted in my suffering. Fortunately, that was a lesson I only needed to repeat once before I was able to fully grasp the concept.

The world is a dangerous place, and if suffering did not exist it would be even more so. Imagine if you didn’t suffer pain when you touched something hot or encountered something sharp enough to penetrate the skin. You would be completely unaware of the danger those things represented and wouldn’t have an incentive to stop touching them or to protect yourself from the harm they represented. Your child may not enjoy suffering, but allowing them to suffer is sometimes the only way for them to ever learn the lesson.

When our children come to us with their suffering, it is important that we help them look at suffering as instructive so that they can learn what they need to learn and move on with their lives. This applies to suffering of a physical nature as well as suffering emotionally or mentally. It is meant to tell us there’s a problem somewhere and to point us in the direction of resolving that problem. A toothache, for example, is meant to let us know that we have a cavity and to encourage us to do something about that cavity before it gets worse. In a larger sense, it is meant to point out to us that our dental hygiene may be lacking, or that our eating habits are not good for us. A child who never realizes that suffering is meant to teach them something grows into an adult (if they make it that far!) who looks at the world as an unfriendly place where bad things happen for no reason. They are not, therefore, able to learn from suffering.

Suffering is Transformative

Once we know that a decision we are making is the cause of our suffering, we are the encouraged to transform our lives by changing the decisions we make. This is the second purpose of suffering – to encourage us to change for the better. We touch the hot iron and then pull back our hand – changing our direction and drawing our attention to ways to avoid the hot iron in the future. The suffering caused a transformation.

After struggling to get my son to accept and even embrace his need for an education from kindergarten through 6th grade, I decided that enough was enough. I informed my son that he was in charge of his education his 7th grade year. I would help him and support him all I could, but I would no longer drive myself insane trying to get him to do what he clearly was not interested in doing. Predictably, toward the end of his 7th grade year, he was failing and there really wasn’t much hope of saving his grades.

The principal pushed me to send the child to summer school, but I refused. I was not going to rescue him from the consequences of his decisions. I knew that the only way to get him to understand was for him to experience the results of his decision. He watched as his friends moved on to 8th grade. He had to sit with 7th graders who were less mature than he was. He had to repeat the content he’d already mastered. Worse yet, at the end of the year, reality hit home. His friends were moving on to high school without him.

He made far better grades his second time around in 7th grade. I didn’t have to push or prod him to return homework or get papers signed that teachers sent home with him. He took the responsibility on himself. The suffering he went through transformed him as a student and propelled him to be a more responsible individual in general.

The Catholic Church does not like for her children to suffer, but she understands that sometimes this is the only possible way for her children to learn. So, she does not chase after them when they leave the confines of the boundaries she has established for them. She calls to them and reminds them that she is there, she waits patiently for their return and greets them eagerly when they come back, but she does not chase after them or force them to return until they are ready.

Transformation Takes Time

When a silk moth caterpillar has reached a certain age, it begins to spin a cocoon of silk threads. The cocoon wraps tightly around the body of the caterpillar, hiding it from view. The caterpillar’s body then begins to change. Wings sprout, and legs lengthen. The stumpy body which crawled across leaves becomes a graceful moth capable of flying. Once all these changes are made, however, the moth must then still struggle out of the cocoon to emerge into the world. If someone comes along and tries to free the moth from its struggles, the moth is left unable to fly because the muscles it needed to develop through struggling never developed. The transformation is incomplete because the process was interrupted.

Like the caterpillar, the suffering our child undergoes will take time and many struggles to be completed. It will not happen overnight. We as parents need to prepare our children for this reality and encourage them when they encounter the inevitable setbacks by reminding them of the progress they’ve made toward the transformation they desire.


Suffering is not meant to be a punishment, but a teaching tool to help us discover problems and find solutions.  Teaching our children to properly understand suffering and to handle it correctly will help them to get through suffering with a healthier and happier attitude.  I hope you have enjoyed this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just joining us, you can find the introduction and earlier chapters by following the link above.  I hope you will join us tomorrow for chapter 30: Recognizing and Overcoming Temptations.

Please leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of this chapter.  Did you find it helpful? Do you agree or disagree? Would you like more? Leave a comment below and let me know :)

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