Today’s video illustrates an all too common reality. To the question, “What’s on your mind?” so few really answer with the truth. Losers are unpopular. Suffering doesn’t fetch “likes.” So why not just lie? What’s the use in sharing these things if no one wants to hear them?
Every summer I go on a mission trip with a group of Italian youth in various regions of Peru. In addition to working on a soccer field, a playground area, and houses in shantytowns, we spend quite a lot of time with sick and abandoned children and elderly. The experience of drawing close for the first time to the suffering of others was very present amongst my young companions. The experience is all the more intense because almost all of them, like our friend in the video, are accustomed to ignoring and avoiding their own experiences of suffering, especially in social situations.
When talking with them and giving it some thought in my own personal time, I kept asking: what is there to say before the reality of suffering? How to respond? What to think? What to feel? What to do?
As this video shows all too well, we tend to ignore and avoid any signs that might draw our attention to the suffering in our lives or in those of others. It makes us feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we can offer solutions, but other times there isn’t much we can do. So we prefer to ignore it completely. We click the “hide all” not only in Facebook but also in our daily lives.
Entering into a room of sick children or dying elderly people isn’t easy for anyone, but it is a fundamental reality of our lives. More than their fragility, our own fragility is what most scares us. That’s why we don’t want to hear about it from others. “Soon we too might need some youth to come and help us eat our meal,” I said to one of them as we were helping some elderly gentlemen with the difficult task of getting the spoon to make the trip from the plate to the mouth. “I hope I never end up like this!” one replied with a shudder. Do we have any choice?
So what to say? Some might want to point to the redemption of suffering realized by Christ on the Cross. This is evidently true, yet sometimes explaining this to a youth who isn’t even sure if God exists can be a little much.
The Rebellion of the Heart
One place to start is in their own heart and their own experience. One reason we tend to hide suffering is because there really isn’t much to say. During the trip I became friends with a nine year old girl named Carla. She and her younger brother had been abandoned by their father a while back. Being with her left me asking some difficult questions: What sense does it all make? A young girl, born with a heart that cries out for love, above all from her father; and yet she will never have that experience. Tragically, instead, her desire for love has been transformed into a deep wound of sorrow. How can I understand this absurd contradiction? And still, she looks at me. With her gaze, I feel her asking me: why?
If one is an unable to find any deeper meaning to the suffering that is coherent, the only possible response is that of silence. Saying to her, “Everything will be alright,” or “It will get better,” mere empty clichés, would only be misleading and possibly false. I have no right to say them, least of all to a child. But remaining in silence is possible only when I am in the comfort of my own home and routine. When I find myself in front of her, the object of her questioning gaze, something in me pushes me to speak. Something deep inside shouts within: Speak to her! Give her hope! Silence must not have the last word! Her suffering is absurd but not her desire to be loved and to love!
Speaking with others, I was not the only one to have a similar experience. It seems as though the human heart rebels against such silence. The demands of love reject it.
Starting with this experience, we can then try to walk along an existential path of questions. We start by asking why our heart responds like this? What is it inside of us that rebels? We must ask ourselves if perhaps suffering is, in addition to an absence of love, also an invitation for us to respond with love. Yet we must go deeper, we must head towards the foundation of things. The contradictory nature of sufferings pushes us to seek for an answer that goes beyond ourselves. We must look to God, we must try to understand why he allows such realities. In contemplating the Cross, we find an unexpected answer. We see, as Paul Claudel says: God did not come to eliminate suffering, he did not come to explain it, but he came to fill it with his presence.” We see that, although we must undergo it for now, that silence doesn’t have the last word. In the end, love prevails and happiness reigns.
Again, this does not eliminate the suffering that we’ve experienced and will continue to experience, but it is there that we discover a hope unlike any other. Not an imaginary hope, rather a hope that our own heart demands and seems to announce, albeit obscurely, and a hope that Christ comes to to confirm.