Some wise man – or, more likely, a wise woman – the first to observe that “children get colds, men get the flu, and women get on with it”.
I remind myself of this saying every time I get a dose of man flu, which invariably and eventually culminates in the conclusion that I have contracted pneumonia, there’s only a thin veil between me and death, and there are very few in the world right now suffering more than me.
This was my state of mind yesterday – or near enough. Maybe I’m engaging in some hyperbole, but not much. I was a hypochondriac misery guts.
Hence I marvel at the good grace shown by the people I visit in hospital, who are afflicted with much worse suffering.
Many people – by no means all, but a good number – adopt a positive attitude which belies the physical pain they’re in, and the emotional stress they’re under.
If I commend them for their cheerfulness, they almost always answer: “Well, there’s no other choice is there, really?”
Except there is a choice. You can easily choose to be miserable.
I know, because that’s what I choose.
To smile despite one’s bad fortune, to be kind to nurses, to be patient with tedious visitors: all of this demands a fortitude which is beyond me. For now, at least.
Of course, not every patient I visit is so positive. A good number display exactly the sort of behaviour that I’d show myself.
They’re miserable, easily irritated, and poor company. It’s a perfectly understandable response, which doesn’t make them (or me) bad.
Nor does such a natural response diminish the great good that the ill and afflicted can accomplish.
When we’re confronted with suffering – our own personal suffering I mean – we’re faced with two decisions.
The first – the decision to be cheerful, and to minimise complaints – is commendable. It is a faithful witness to the joy of the gospel. But it is not as important as the other decision related to suffering.
A Christian who suffers can choose to unite their suffering to Christ on the cross. In this way we become co-redeemers in Christ. There’s no shortage of saints and scholars who’ve related as much, but St Paul probably says it best:
“It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.” (Col 1:24)
I think even the hypochondriac misery guts is capable of this co-redemption. We can indulge in self-pity, we can take it out on others, we can persistently ask God to take away our suffering, but still that suffering can be redemptive.
These two decisions – the decision to suffer in silence, and the decision to unite one’s suffering with Christ’s – are different in the way that Martha and Mary were different. It’s the difference between doing and being.
It’s always commendable to channel our “inner-Martha”. To work for the good; to carve an identity from what we do. I think the choice to be cheerful is a matter of doing. It’s something the saints model very well.
But we must cultivate our “inner-Mary”, too. To simply be. To unite one’s suffering to Christ on the cross is surely a matter of being.
It is an act of the will, but it’s an act that we “do” for an instant, which profoundly transforms our being. That should console ill-tempered patients everywhere.
There’s no denying cheerfulness and patience bear witness to our faith. It’s something I’ll keep aspiring to do. But it’s an invisible way of being which constitutes the real work of Christianity: to collaborate in Christ’s redemptive act; to intercede for the world.
None of this means we should seek suffering. Nor does uniting one’s suffering with Christ lessen the pain. But it does give meaning to suffering. It enables suffering to become an act of love. Love of God, and love of whomever it is we pray for.
In and with Christ, pain is never in vain.
This post first appeared on catholicweekly.com.au on 1 October, 2014.