The Virtue of Voluntary Suffering

In many ways, we are often taught that suffering is something to be avoided. In many ways, this is true. Reducing war, poverty, starvation, climate damage, among others, is a noble goal. Working towards the elimination of involuntary suffering is something that should be lauded, and is one of the few things that I find to be “Good” with a capital “G.”

However, it seems to me that, within this scope of reducing involuntary suffering, we have lost the employment of the word involuntary – American society (from what I have witnessed) seems to encourage the abolition of not only voluntary suffering, but any and all hardship.

Voluntary suffering takes many different forms. Going to the gym, higher education, raising a child, working through marital struggles, going to therapy, among many other things are all what I would classify as willingly suffering.

One thing that I do not want to assert is that suffering without a goal in mind. Suffering is something that allows us to grow as people, as sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, as community members. However, this is only the case if we approach suffering with intentionality. Wallowing in self-pity, griping about our shitty jobs (which is a legitimate concern in our neoliberal political climate, but this is a whole different conversation), endless scrolling on social media to deliberately make ourselves angry and, perhaps most importantly, falling into despair. These are all glimpses into suffering without intentionality, without purpose.

So what is the virtue in suffering in a voluntary, intentional manner? It is the recognition that the willingness to grow, even in the face of its difficulty, is something that is inherently Good (with a capital G). To reject the necessity of suffering is to stagnate, to be incapable of growth towards a greater spiritual, moral of physical self.

Engaging in suffering willingly is to recognize that we are flawed, that we need to grow, and that by enduring a challenge we are able to remedy or alleviate, to some degree, this inner blemish on our personhood.

Within this conversation, it is important to remember that these blemishes are reminders of what we can be, and that to become better than these pitfalls make us, we must engage in the struggle of self improvement. To become complacent, to accept these flaws as something a part of us and something to be accepted and perhaps even be lauded is the opposite of voluntary suffering, and this belief is a blemish on the American landscape. This blemish must be addressed and intentionally eradicated, just like the individual must address, suffer and eradicate the blemishes in their soul.

To suffer, to grow and to improve as a human being is Good. To become complacent, to accept our failings and integrate them into ourselves and our society is Evil; to address evil, we must willingly, intentionally and voluntarily engage in the pain of self improvement.

A Crisis of Faith on Easter Sunday

For me, faith was something that was taken for granted throughout my childhood. With my mom being a convert and working for the Catholic church, and my dad being a “cradle Catholic” belief in Jesus, the trinity and my salvation through the Church was always something that I didn’t just believe in – it was something that just was.

Many times, in my current stage in life, I find myself wishing that my faith was similar to what it was back then – not even unquestioning, as the idea of questioning such a cornerstone was something that wouldn’t even cross my mind. I often wish that my faith could be something that imbued every facet of my life, elevated my actions and directed my goals.

In reality, my faith is a constant struggle. It is something that gives me fits and starts, certainly not something that makes my daily motions easier. And I am learning to accept that. Learning to integrate that into my understanding of God, of life after death, and of my role in the lives of those around me.

It is struggle that makes man grow stronger, even if all that this man wants is to sink into his couch and enjoy the luxuries and comforts that the modern, secular society can provide. My crises of faith (which are far more often than I would like to admit) are chances for me to grow in understanding of who the God of my understanding is.

In a time where I have lived with people who I love and respect, people who have incredibly different faith systems from my own, I find that I am unable to sit in comfort with the beliefs that I grew up with. While there is the ever present struggle to believe that someone who believes in a different belief system than me will end up in Hell simply because of that difference, there are so many other challenges that I find myself confronting. The beauty that is present in their beliefs, their rituals and practices, and in their books. The kindness in their hearts and the generosity in their actions. The conviction of their beliefs, as well as their solidarity with me in their own crises of faith show me just how fragile my own religion is.

It is here that I find the struggle to be the most prescient. The conflicts that continually arise between my religion and my faith. For better or worse, I find myself to be a man of deep convictions – whether these convictions will change as the wind does is another matter. With this, though, is the convictions that I have in my faith that contradict what is taught in churches, cathedrals and religious communities. Many aspects of my faith are molded and shaped by the teachings of the Catholic church. At the same time, there are aspects that are shaped by Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and others. Just as many Christian denominations teach that the relationship that we have with God is a personal one, I have found that my relationship with faith is in many ways similar to this personal relationship that I am taught to seek with God. All I hope with that is that it does not become so intertwined with myself that I cannot see God through my own ego and pride.

On this Easter Sunday, I continue to ask myself what it is that I hope for. The answer to that is not one that I yet have, and I am quite grateful for that. I find that the questions encourage far more growth and change than the answers ever do. On this Easter Sunday, I am grateful for a God that allows me to stumble through His challenges of faith, so that I may find Him. For when I do ultimately find Him, I fully believe that He will have His arms wide open for me.