Recently, Virginia Ironside, a U.K. advice columnist, stunned a TV host by admitting that if she had a suffering child (then she emphasized, "A deeply suffering child..") she would be "the first to want to put a pillow over its head," presumably to put the child out of his misery. Another guest, Rev. Joanna Jepson, looked on in horror as Ironside shared her view in a chillingly calm manner.
I was intrigued by Jepson, whose background was not explained during this short video.
Rev. Joanna Jepson was born with a congenital jaw defect. Her upper jaw protruded by eight millimeters and her lower jaw hung down into her neck. She described her appearance as "looking like a chipmunk" and had to wait until her teens before having reconstructive surgery. It was a long, painful process to reset her jaw, but she went through it, explaining that it allowed her to understand more fully human nature. In school, she was bullied because of her appearance and then later, after surgery, became part of the "pretty and popular" crowd.
What is profound is that she has gone through the valley and found her own mountaintop. It would have been very easy to have given up and given in to depression, but she didn't. She became a vicar for the Church of England, and later, championing the rights of the unborn when a baby was aborted in its 28th week because it had been discovered to have a cleft lip and palate; reason enough for the doctors to declare the baby as having a "serious handicap" and thus, should be aborted.
Jepson brought a legal challenge against the doctors and raised the question: just what is "handicapped" anyway? And more importantly, why see only the negative of handicaps?
Another case of a handicapped person, which is much more severe, is that of Nick Vujicic. Nick is nothing short of amazing in my book. He was born without limbs. He is now an inspirational speaker who travels around the world, speaking to schools and churches about not giving up. His trademark storytelling device is to deliberately fall to the ground and then roll back up, showing his audience how important it is to try again and not quit. (If you watch the video below, you will hear Nick talk about the importance of faith, and how his parents taught him to believe in God and God's purpose for his life. Very, very powerful.)
Think of how much Nick and Rev. Joanna Jepson have suffered. There are countless stories like theirs -- families who have had children with birth defects, these same children who grew to become adults in a society that worships youth and beauty; and the trials they have endured. The world, like Virginia Ironside, would say there is no point in such suffering, such hardship. Why not "put a child out of its misery?" But I challenge them all to consider Nick, for his voice is resonating with many young people.
They look at Nick and think that if a guy who was born without limbs could find purpose in his life, maybe they can, too. The fact that Nick is a Christian is a powerful testimony that he has found that suffering is not without its own frame of redemption. It is evident to me that he has pondered long and hard about the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ; and concluded that suffering has a deeper meaning. There is evil in the world. There is injustice. But the answer is not to avoid it or try to eradicate whatever we perceive as being unfair, cloaking it as a merciful act.
Within the Catholic Church, there is a saying: Everyone has their cross to bear. Each of us has been given a cross that we have not chosen, in order to further connect with Christ and His suffering. Jesus Christ willingly took the cross upon His shoulders, knowing that a greater purpose was at stake. So, too, we are asked by God to shoulder whatever cross He has given us in order to be transformed into the likeness of His Son. It is part of the journey.
Within those times of suffering, honest questions are asked (and sometimes shouted) to God. And when we surrender our preferences, our desires, our anger and frustration, we experience something miraculous that could not have happened otherwise: true joy and peace in Him. When we know that we have fully surrendered to God everything, He is then able to fill us with something the world will never be able to give -- contentment. We are then able to glimpse the truth of St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews:
But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Hebrews 2:9,10 RSV)
We are also made perfect through suffering, for what Christ has experienced, so is the call for His followers. This is what the world does not understand. To the world, suffering is to be avoided at all cost. For the believer in Christ, suffering is the cost for purchasing an incorruptible treasure, more precious than the sum of all the gold on earth.
Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:2-5 RSV)
When a misguided society takes it upon itself to remove those who they decide are "suffering too much," they are removing the opportunity for that person to turn toward God and be radically changed. They are placing themselves in the position of God -- bestowing life upon those who in their eyes are "worthy" while dispensing with those who they feel are lacking. It is clear that they are morally and ethically wrong. But too often, the solution of expedience seems to trump morality.
There are wonderful people who are physically-challenged who rejected their circumstances as limiting their dreams and potential. I think of Joni Eareckson Tada, paralyzed from the neck down but whose delicate water-color paintings and Christian witness have touched thousands. (She also was diagnosed with breast cancer this past June and could use your prayers.) There is Christy Brown, the famous Irish author, painter, and poet who had cerebral palsy, and who had a film made of his life in My Left Foot. There is Charles Krauthammer, the brilliant doctor of psychiatry, political commentator and columnist, who was paralyzed from a diving accident while attending medical school. He continued his studies and graduated first class from the Harvard Medical School.
There are many others, those who have disabilities but yet have risen above their challenges to fulfill their dreams. (The families of those who are handicapped have also been given the opportunity to love in a seemingly hopeless situation.) The world would have been robbed of their gifts if someone said, "Well, I think it's an act of mercy to put this person out of their misery." Who defines misery? Certainly the world's definition is not God's.
Catholicism is the only place I have found that does not shrink from addressing the issue of suffering. In fact, many have celebrated it, even crying out to God, "I am not worthy!" For them, to identify so closely to Christ's sufferings is an honor, one that is held in awe. Many saints have rejoiced in their sufferings. I'm sure they would reject Virginia Ironside's perspective and counter it with a call to follow Christ.
In partnership with Catholicism's "culture of life" and all the efforts to preserve life, we must continue to voice our opposition to those who want to silence suffering, and the slippery slope it presents. Not too long ago, we had Dr. Kevorkian, who was justified by many for assisting in the suicide of someone suffering from physical pain. Is it any wonder that we now see our society contemplating killing someone because their suffering causes us pain? And does society's comfort level outweigh a person's right to life?
Catholics have a different answer and it brings life, not death.