Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Aleteia
Sunday 29 November |
Saint of the Day: Bl. Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos
home iconLifestyle
line break icon

The question you should ask someone who is suffering

CANCER

Shutterstock

Calah Alexander - published on 09/01/17

Cancer, grief and suffering aren't a war to be won.

A few weeks ago, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about cancer; specifically, about how we should stop using military terms when we talk about it. I was so glad to read the article because it’s a phenomenon that I’ve noticed for years and found troubling.




Read more:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you.

The author, Mary Wisniewski, wrote about how the public responses to John McCain’s recent glioblastoma diagnosis focus on how tough and brave he is. She explains that her older sister just died from that same cancer, despite also being tough and brave, before lamenting the way we talk about cancer.

I hate it how sometimes cancer is put into such militaristic terms, as if people who have strong personalities and determination can “win.” It’s not that kind of war. You are not more virtuous if you survive cancer, and you are not weak if you don’t. Why do we do this — why do we imagine cancer as a battle that the best patients can win?

Wisniewski hypothesizes that when people hear about a cancer diagnosis they don’t know what to say, and want to be encouraging. I think that’s partially true, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think our response to cancer is a lot like our response to any tragedy: our empathy doesn’t transcend our gut-wrenching, primal fear of suffering the same fate.

You can see this play out particularly online when people are faced with news of some tragedy: some of them pray, offer condolences, or ask how they can help, but many people dissect the events or actions leading up to the tragedy and find the fatal mistake that would have averted the crisis, or even a reason to blame those suffering for their own fate.

This is happening in response to Houston’s plight right now — half the articles are praising unlikely heroes, and the other half are blaming Houstonians (or their government) for not evacuating. All this could have been avoided, you see, if only they had done this, or that, or the other thing.




Read more:
20 Tips from Padre Pio for Those Who Are Suffering

The way people respond to cancer is much the same — in fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. Instead of finding reasons why, they encourage the suffering person to fight hard and not give up. It’s a soothing thought, isn’t it? That strength of will alone could save us from cancer. But it isn’t true.

The truth is that our primal fear is actually pretty reasonable. We know bad things happen to good people — we know they happen with no warning and no reprieve, and that nothing could have changed the outcome. But if we allowed ourselves to really believe that, we’d probably be too paralyzed by fear to leave the house. So we rationalize and reassure ourselves that it won’t happen to us, because we’d know better, or fight harder.

Rejecting the possibility of suffering ourselves is a completely understandable response to suffering. The problem is that when we reject the possibility of our own suffering, we also reject those who suffer. As Pope Benedict said in Spe Salvi, this is the mark of a cruel and inhuman society.

Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love.

Instead of trying to encourage those who are suffering, whether it’s in the form of cancer or flooding or grief, we should try and find a way to suffer with them. “How can I help?” is a good question, but a better one is, “How can I help you bear this? How can I show you that you are not suffering alone?”

It’s a harder response — much harder. It’s also much better, and more human.

Tags:
Practicing Mercy
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in eight languages: English, French, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...




Top 10
LUXOR FILM FESTIVAL
Zoe Romanowsky
20-year-old filmmaker wins award for powerful...
Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti, East London Gospel Choir
J-P Mauro
Hear Clapton and Pavarotti sing a prayer to t...
FIRST CENTURY HOUSE AT THE SISTERS OF NAZARETH SITE
John Burger
British archaeologist confident he has found ...
PRAY
Cerith Gardiner
12 Things we can be grateful for this Thanksg...
EARTHQUAKE
Bret Thoman, OFS
Two earthquakes couldn't stop these Italian n...
CATHEDRAL OF THE SACRED HEART
Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP
6 Questions to determine if your heart is har...
VATICAN POPE GOOD FRIDAY COLOSSEUM
Kathleen N. Hattrup
Learn to pray with the early Church and to di...
See More
Newsletter
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.