Wednesday, January 09, 2008

How To Help

An old priest told me of a lesson he learned in seminary. His instructor asked the class to speculate about what percentage of the people seated in the pews on any given Sunday was suffering. Seminarians estimated five percent, fifteen percent, twenty percent, etc. The priest guessed it was thirty-three percent. All wrong, said the instructor. The correct answer was a hundred percent. All the people looking up from their pews were suffering.

Many times I’ve looked around in church and wondered about this. Is it true? Does everybody suffer? Some of us carry it well and others of us wear it on our sleeves, but I don’t think anybody escapes. It seems that some of us suffer more than others, but that’s hard to measure because suffering is subjective and non-transferable. There are, perhaps, some people whose lives are so short and whose deaths are so quick that they don’t suffer much, but we don’t know for sure.

When the subject has come up in my classes, I ask students their opinions about what kind hurts most: physical pain or emotional/spiritual suffering. Generally about six of ten believe emotional/spiritual pain is worse than physical pain. This is from from fourteen-year-olds at a melodramatic stage of life. They tend to use crutches and ace bandages longer than necessary to milk every drop of empathy. Some exaggerate limps and talk endlessly about how much something hurts. Others, however, sustain painful injuries or lose a family member through death, desertion or addiction but bear it stoically. Still, most believe physical pain is not so hard to bear as spiritual/emotional pain.

There is an affinity between people who suffer. They bond because they sense an empathy in one another and recognize when someone is in pain more quickly than they otherwise would. They’re more willing to offer relief. Nearly everyone is inclined to help when they see suffering in their presence except for a distinct minority present in every society - those we call sociopaths. Sociopaths are by definition incapable of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes - so totally selfish they don’t fit in anywhere - not even with others like themselves.

Early in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it was believed that when someone was visited with suffering, it was because he or she had fallen out of favor with God, that some evil was present in the one suffering. The Old Testament’s Book of Job offers one such scenario. As he loses his family and his riches, Job’s neighbors wonder what evil he had done to bring such suffering onto himself. The Nation of Israel suffered when it strayed from God’s laws and learned there is some redemptive quality in suffering. Christians share this idea.

Those who reject religious explanations for suffering usually blame government or economic systems for it. They believe it’s possible to create a community in which everything is distributed equally, with no rich and no poor, that each of us can work for the good of all. In the 19th century, secular utopian groups tried many times to create societies to implement such egalitarian principles. They pooled their resources and established themselves on the fringes of society. Some survived years, even decades, but eventually broke up. In the 20th century Russia and China established such systems throughout their whole nations. Russia turned into the Soviet Union and survived seven decades before disintegrating. China started later and is still operating, though it’s gradually transitioning to capitalism.

Somewhere between twenty and sixty million people suffered and died in the Soviet Union in the effort to transform it into a “perfect” society. Ironically, the net effect of their effort to reduce human suffering was to greatly exacerbate it. In China too, tens of millions died in purges like the Cultural Revolution to “purify” their movement. German National Socialism purged religion and killed millions in a dozen-year attempt to create a thousand-year Reich.

Within Christianity, various religious orders established societies within the larger church which have survived for centuries. It’s also true that Christian sects made war on one another during the Reformation. There were purges like the Spanish Inquisition in which thousands suffered and died. Crusades between Christians and Muslims lasted nearly two centuries and produced about 1.5 million dead.

Historical efforts to reduce human suffering from both religious and secular groups have shown successes and failures. Religious efforts, however, have lasted much longer than secular ones. Much more striking though have been the failures. Those are many, many times more deadly in secular, atheist societies than in religious ones.

History has shown us that the human condition is anything but a rose garden. We must expect suffering and we must help each other through it. Help is most effective when it’s person-to-person or in small, spiritual groups - and least effective when forced by big government.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting topic: what inspired it I wonder? Here's my comment.
Suffering is part of the human condition, no doubt, whether physical or emotional. There are , however, degrees of suffering and those students of yours brought up in a rich and safe environment have little conception of real sustained physical suffering; they do know to some extent about emotional anguish. This comes to a large degree from the ethical condition of our society.
We live a tissue of lies the majority of time. We buy a gallon of milk for $3.99; why the 99c? Because we see $3 and don't see the almost $4 which would make it less sellable? Same with a gallon of gasoline; we buy at 3.09 plus 9/10 of a cent. We see $3.09 not the almost $3.10.
We watch endless commercials on TV; automatically dismissing the majority of them as lies, half-truths or worse.
We have recently listened endlessly as it seems to senators with their numerous perks, salary, health care etc., who have been in ineffectual power for years telling us how they will change things if we vote for them. Do we believe? Not too many of us do but like sheep without a shepherd we accept the false promises leading to further emotional stress.

On some level we all know these simple facts; there are many more examples; and most of us realize that they have penetrated our gut and that we live a life of lies. I believe that this causes a great deal of the mental suffering in our society today.

How's that for a stretch!

Anonymous said...

Tom, good column and much better than the last one. I especially enjoyed the wisdom in the last paragraph. I suggest you listen to it yourself. There are many small groups gathering who have not been satisfied with their mainstream spiritual upbringing. Some are Christian some Buddhist, ect. This hints of "multiculturalism," where you go off the deep end. The truth? All humans suffer, and we find our own support groups to combat it. Compassion is the result of any sucessful spirituality.