THE BLOG
09/28/2016 12:22 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2017

Can Mother Teresa's 'Cult Of Suffering' Teach Us Anything?

Who's right about Mother Teresa's approach to suffering? Should we imitate it, condemn it, or something in between?

The relationship between the "saint of Kolkata" and suffering is complicated. On the surface, at least, she spent her life caring for the city's poorest and sickest--people who have endured unimaginable suffering. According to her longtime detractors, however, she didn't relieve suffering at all, but rather promoted what they call a "cult of suffering," in which she saw pain as redemptive and her dying patients often received little palliative care as a result.

From afar, it's difficult to know the accuracy of these criticisms. But her critics have a point about the saint's attitude toward pain. The collection of her private writings, Come Be My Light, quotes a letter from Mother Teresa to her friend Eileen Egan: "Sorrow, suffering, Eileen, is but a kiss of Jesus -- a sign that you have come so close to Jesus that He can kiss you. I think this is the most beautiful definition of suffering. So let us be happy when Jesus stoops down to kiss us."

To postmodern ears, that can sound mighty callous, especially when said to someone else. Mother Teresa's fellow Christians can make a case against it as well, pointing to a Jesus who, according to the Gospels, did not leave people in their suffering but rather healed them.

So, shall we toss out Mother Teresa's thoughts about suffering? Is our culture's predominant view -- that suffering is always bad -- the better one?

Not so fast. As it happens, a long line of saints and sages have seen suffering as redemptive, instructive, or otherwise valuable. This tradition, too, goes back at least to the Bible: St. Paul wrote, "Let us also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us" (Romans 5:3-5a).

Put all this together, and here's what it looks like: Suffering has value. If we see others suffer, we should try to alleviate their suffering -- thereby depriving them of its value.

Huh?

Clearly we're left with a set of truths that don't fit comfortably together. And yet, taken together, they may yield a nuanced, balanced way to look at the eternal problem of human suffering. That way asks us to acknowledge that:

  • Suffering happens. There's no way around it. The first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths puts it right out there: life is suffering. If we can learn to embrace this--without being complicit in the suffering--we can live more deeply into life as it is, which brings us peace and makes our contributions to life more effective. This is the spirit behind the serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
  • Suffering sucks. Paying attention to this simple fact helps us avoid the simplistic clichés about suffering, like "Time heals all wounds" or "God won't give you more than you can handle." The psalmists of the Hebrew scriptures not only knew that suffering sucks, but ranted at God about it: "Awake, O Lord! Why are you sleeping?... Why have you hidden your face and forgotten our affliction and oppression?" (Psalms 44:23-24).
  • Suffering can bear fruit. Not all suffering, to be sure: there is little good in the suffering of a terminally ill patient at a level of pain that blocks all thought. But how many times have you heard someone recount a painful situation and then say, "Well, I learned my lesson" or "I'm the wiser for it"? Above all else, suffering has a way of instilling the mother of all human virtues, compassion. We naturally identify with, and care deeply for, those who suffer what we've suffered.
  • Relieving others' suffering is the right thing to do. Yes, even though suffering may bear fruit in some way. For one thing, we don't know whether a particular person's suffering carries any wisdom or benefit, so compassion calls us to err on the side of relief. For another, we're compelled to relieve suffering: by Jesus (for Christians), by the imperatives of karma (for Buddhists), by simple human decency (for everyone).

Perhaps the best way we can approach suffering, in short, is to recognize it as a (lousy) part of life, do what we can to relieve it, search out our own suffering to see what wisdom it might bear, and above all use it in the service of empathy and compassion. By doing this, we live into the world as it is, suffering included, while doing what we can to make it better, especially in the lives of others.