These posts (here and here) at the Secular Right blog, and recent family events, have led me to reflect on the meaning of suffering. What I write below is not particularly original, but having read similar things for many years, it is only now that I am truly beginning to understand what was meant.
The first thing we must understand about suffering is that it is unavoidable to some degree. The question then, is not whether we need to seek out suffering, but how we handle the suffering that life inevitably inflicts on us. Of course everyone agrees, secular and religious, that suffering should be minimized to the extent reasonably possible. The Catholic Church is the sponsor of hospitals and relief agencies throughout the world. I read somewhere that the Church is the single largest organized provider of such services; I don't know if this is true, but there is no doubt that the Church actively supports such activities in a big way. Clearly then, when the Church asks us to do things like "embrace suffering", she doesn't mean that we should needlessly endure suffering.
Despite our best efforts, however, some suffering in life is inevitable. In fact, quite a lot is inevitable. The basic metaphysical fact that our being includes a body that can be damaged means that suffering is a possibility in our existence; even if such physical suffering never becomes actual, its possibility causes anxiety which is itself a form of suffering. So as soon as we come into the world, we begin to suffer in one way or another. How shall we respond to the suffering that is unavoidable? This is the question of suffering that we all must face, religious or secular.
Furthermore, it is not obvious that avoiding suffering is the greatest good; there may be goods that we can obtain only through suffering, but that are worth obtaining even through suffering. In fact, it is obvious that there are such goods. Every child who endures vaccination shots has experienced this truth. And every parent who disciplines a child, even though such discipline causes suffering, knows that the suffering is worth it. (Both for the parent and the child. Remember "this hurts me more than it hurts you?") So the principle that "suffering should be minimized to the extent reasonably possible" takes a lot of unpacking, since it must involve a judgment with respect to goods obtainable only through suffering, and the degree of suffering that is reasonable in attempting to attain them.
My problem with the typical secular approach to suffering, as illustrated in the two posts linked to above, is that it never addresses this question, or even seems to be aware of it. In Andrew Stuttaford's post, he quotes a father grieving over the death of his daughter, a father who rages against what he takes to be the religious interpretation of suffering. I will not take issue with a grieving father, but I only note that Stuttaford offers no alternative interpretation of suffering. He simply agrees that the religious interpretation is unacceptable and moves on. In other words, he avoids addressing the question of suffering head on.
Is it merely accidental that Stuttaford quoted a grieving father in his post? If we begin to understand what Christ teaches us about suffering, we will see that it is not. For love is one of those great goods that is not obtainable without suffering. This is one of the meanings of the Cross. We live in a world where everything born must suffer and die; therefore, as soon as we love, we are presented with the fact that what we love will decline and disappear in one way or another. This knowledge in itself causes suffering, something every father or mother knows. As soon as a child is born, we are already anxious about all the things that can go wrong for him. And the more we love the child, the more anxious we become.
If we embrace love, then, we must also embrace the suffering that accompanies it. If we wish to avoid suffering, we must also avoid love. We see this happening in the fact that people no longer have love affairs, but "relationships." A relationship is understood to be an essentially temporary thing, makeable or breakable by either party at will, and so successfully avoids the deep entanglement - and suffering - that a genuine love affair would involve. But if we wish to have real love affairs, and to love deeply, how can we deal with the suffering that we know must come our way?
This is what Faith and Hope are about, the two theological virtues supporting the supreme theological virtue of Love. Christ loved greatly and so suffered and died on the Cross; but that is not the end of the story. The Resurrection shows the far side of suffering when suffering is undergone in union with Christ. In Christ, there will be life and love when all appears hopeless, destroyed and finished. The key word is appears; for in this life, there is no "proof" that we will be experience a resurrection after suffering; all we see and know is the suffering and its apparent finality. But Christ reveals that suffering and death are not necessarily final; in Faith, we embrace the possibility through Him that it is not final, and through Hope, find the strength to face the suffering that will come our way through love. This is what Christians mean when they talk about "embracing suffering." It means not turning away from the suffering that love brings, but facing it and enduring it through the strength of Christ, for our own strength is not sufficient for the journey.
Absent a connection to Christ, how will we endure suffering? We all have greater or lesser natural gifts in this regard, but natural gifts are different in kind from the divine gifts flowing from Christ. Without Christ, we are simply unable to endure the suffering true love entails. So we find ways to avoid it: At the end of life by embracing suicide, or at the beginning of life by embracing abortion, and in the middle of life by avoiding the deep commitments true love involves.