In a world where suffering has been stripped of meaning, people become hopeless, and try to just kill the pain
I was having a bad day, and it wasn’t going to improve anytime soon. A contract I was working on had taken a particularly irritating turn, we’d just gotten another round of medical bills in the mail, I had excruciating back pain, and my quarterly taxes were due. As I hefted the baby on my hip and walked down to the bank and the post office, I started brooding. “Sure, this is hard now. Kids are hard. Kids are expensive. But it’s bound to get easier, right?”
And then I ran through the next few decades in my head and realized that no, it’s unlikely to get easier. It will probably get much harder. And my husband and I will spend the good years working as hard as we can to get back up to zero, and then our bad years suffering and dying. And this is not even remarkable. It’s been the life-course of 99% of the human race since we first got booted out of Eden. You work hard, you suffer, and then you die. And only after death do you get to rest.
Is it any wonder that so many of our neighbors and age-mates are lost in addiction to drugs and screens? Life is work. Life is pain. Yes, there’s joy too, but on the balance, living is hard. If your only hope for an end to the pain is the nothingness of death, why not numb it now? Have some mercy on yourself. Don’t prolong your suffering. Living will never get any easier. It will always be more work than reward.
As Catholics, we can expect something better. On the other side, there’s not oblivion, but rejoicing. We work out our salvation here, sacrificing, hurting, loving and walking with Jesus along our little via crucis, but we also get to join him in the resurrection. We may be little, poor, and sorrowing here, but the bulk of our life stories don’t happen here. This is the prologue, not the main plot.
But what about the 49% of our neighbors who never go to church, or the people who go to churches that proclaim material well-being as a sign of salvation? Why should they suffer now, when all the future promises is more suffering, or at best, nothingness? Where is mercy for them?
In the language of our times, mercy means avoiding suffering. We have “mercy-killing” to put the old and sick “out of misery.” We show mercy when we give someone a reprieve from suffering. In the secular world, mercy is a negative value. It’s not the beginning of something, but a quick ending that brings lasting numbness.
What does Jesus give us instead? The Good News. In the Sermon on the Mount, he doesn’t tell us that the poor and the suffering are blessed because he’s going to wave a magic wand and take the pain away. He tells us that we’re blessed because this is the beginning of the story, and the starting place for incomprehensible joy. We don’t need to numb ourselves. In fact, we shouldn’t numb ourselves, because living through the hard stuff right now is important for what comes next. The Beatitudes are a proclamation of mercy. Not the numbing mercy of the world, but the superabundant mercy of God.
We’ve done a lousy job of proclaiming them to the people around us, I think. People get a sense that being “churched” means not suffering, but with rules. So why not take the suffering-free route that is also rule-free, and embrace drugs, or video games, or some other numbing behavior?
In reality we have something better to offer. We have suffering, but it is redemptive. We have a Lord who hears the cry of the poor and a chance to inherit the Kingdom of God. We have real mercy, not a pale imitation. We need to be bolder about sharing what we have.