At the beginning of this school year, one of my best friends told me that she was depressed. She felt a growing sense of unworthiness and struggled to feel joyful when she did things that normally made her happy. Having little motivation to do much of anything, she feared she would not be able to enjoy her senior year. She had become angry with God for allowing her to feel this way. There was a defeated tone in her voice as she disclosed how she was feeling to me. She has lived with depression and anxiety for some time now and she was frustrated to have to go through it again. My heart ached for her, wishing that I could confer on her some of my own happiness and relieve her of the darkness that seemed to be closing in.
I expressed how much I wished I could make her feel better and lift her burden. I recommended that she return to seeing the counselor she had seen before when she felt this way. I asked if she was eating and sleeping well and whether she was exercising regularly. All of these things she appreciated, but I sensed that there was some lingering anxiety that I wasn’t addressing. Eventually she asked me the million-dollar question: “Libbie, I don’t understand why God made me this way. What did I do to deserve this suffering? Does it mean anything?”
I didn’t know how to answer her. The mystery of suffering does not have a quick, easy answer. In his apostolic letter on suffering, Salvifici Doloris, Pope Saint John Paul II recognizes that there is a limit to how well we can explain suffering: “Suffering... always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations” (SD 13). Suffering is a mystery because it is humanly impossible to fully grasp its meaning. Still, there are some explanations that may help when one is suffering.
When I struggle to explain to myself why people around me are suffering, I look to the Cross. On the Cross, Jesus Christ experienced human suffering. He experienced the most painful kind of human suffering: feeling utterly cut off from the love of God. I like to meditate on that when I feel as though there is no good reason why someone I love suffers. Jesus Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, knows what it is like to feel completely rejected from the love of God. That is to say, God knows what it is like to feel outside of the love of God. There is some consolation and peace in that, at least for me. There is some sanctification of suffering if it has been experienced by God. If the redemption of the world occurred through suffering, there must be some value in it: “The mystery of the Redemption of the world is in an amazing way rooted in suffering, and this suffering in turn finds in the mystery of the Redemption its supreme and surest point of reference” (SD 31).
There is one other explanation that helps me. I have often observed that people who have undergone profound suffering are sometimes the most compassionate, joyful, loving individuals. To be fair, I am fully aware that suffering often makes people harder, not softer, but in my experience, the latter is more apparent. I look at people who have experienced things too horrible for me to imagine and wonder how they can smile so wide or love so deeply. Salvifici Doloris says that suffering is “present in order to unleash love in the human person” (SD 29). It is precisely because of their suffering that these people have such an enormous capacity to love. I find it paradoxical that the very people who have been so broken in suffering know how to love so well.
For a while, I’ve held the belief that many of the important things in life are inherently paradoxical. It is in giving that we receive, loving that we are loved, dying that we are restored to eternal life. And so I believe it is with the mystery of suffering. In feeling incredibly unloved and unworthy, it opens you up to love more than you ever could have before.
When my friend asked me that question, I thought of a passage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. He writes that, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. / And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. / And how else can it be? / The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain” (29). I explained this passage to my friend, hoping that it would make some sense. As her depression has carved into her more deeply, so too has she filled up the empty space that remains with more love.
I don’t have a good answer to the problem of suffering. It doesn’t make sense. All I know is how important it is to simply walk with people when they suffer, knowing that while there may not be any way to lift their burden, you can always just love them. The next time someone you love is suffering, just be with them. Accompanying another person in their suffering is one of the most beautiful things you can do. I’m not saying I’m great at it; I’m saying that we’re all humans trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense to us and sometimes it’s best to just be. It’s okay to rest in the uncomfortable paradox.