A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: BEYOND PAIN AND SUFFERING: A 2016 Holy Week Reflection

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 24 March) – Why do human beings suffer?

This must be a question raised individually and collectively by human persons through the course of humanity’s history, ever since an existential consciousness gave rise to a greater acknowledgment of the impact of suffering.

For peoples dominated by a Judaeo-Christian world view – and Filipinos are no exception – another question arises: If God the Creator is the loving Father Who Jesus of Nazareth sought to manifest to his disciples, then why would a loving Father who created the world include suffering as an integral part of life?

These questions may seem rhetorical. But for someone who spent two weeks in the hospital (due to illnesses arising as internal organs collapsed) and continues to go through treatment, these questions are very experiential. On Thursday, 7 March 2016, I checked into the Brokenshire Hospital in Davao City realizing that I needed medical intervention badly. The following days were days of excruciating pain and miserable suffering. What I experienced throughout this week might as well constituted as a time with the highest level of pain and suffering throughout my 68 years of existence.

Within the first hour of my confinement in the Founcaldian landscape of a hospital, the medical interventions came one after another. This involved all kinds of tests which cannot be done unless needles – of various sizes – inject all kinds of fluids into my sick body. At first I thought it would be a good idea to monitor how often the injections would take place; in three days’ time, I gave up as I continued to hear the mantra of the nurses both as seeking permission but also to warn the patient that pain is forthcoming: “Tusok ko ha!” (I will now inject you!)

I made myself fully conscious of what I was undergoing, given the thought that perhaps this could be one way I could move beyond the denial stage. But that only heightened the impact of suffering. Once the initial tests were out, my attending doctor immediately decided to deal with my kidneys. With all the indicators – high creatinine count, vomiting, nausea, lack of appetite, etc. – the first step was to consider dialysis to provide relief to the kidneys. This decision led to the first stages of intense pain as all kinds of needles got stuck into my veins and a catheter was installed to connect to a main vein of the neck.

Once that immediate action was done, another doctor was called in to look at another angle of my illness, based on what could be gleaned from signs appearing on the ultra-sound screen or discovered through other procedures, some of which can be so utterly embarrassing (which brings in shame). Aside from the kidneys, my prostate was in trouble as it has reached an alarming size. An operation was decided on, but I had to wait 4 days before the operation could be performed, since the doctor saw how low was my hemoglobin count and feared that I didn’t have enough blood helpful for clotting. There was also the need to stabilize my blood pressure, which naturally in these circumstances was fluctuating at such rise or fall of numbers.

The operation to look into the prostate and delete it from my body – if that was the best way to heal me – took place five days after my confinement. I have never experienced any surgery in my entire life, so the prospect of going under the knife was terrifying as I have seen how family members and friends – who underwent with such invasive form of treatment – suffered through the procedures immensely. The long wait of five days – while relieved temporarily of physical pain – heightened mental suffering; it is this context that gave rise to the first question I raised in this essay.

I pray to God I will never have to undergo any more invasive operation in the future. All of us who have undergone such an experience fully know so well the depths of one’s grief and lamentation while lying down on that bed at the operating room. As one is prepared for the procedure and is wheeled down corridors bringing the patient from his room to the OR, the prospect of facing intense physical pain can be so overwhelming. On my part, it was not the prospect of dying inside the OR that brought fear, but how painful the whole procedure would be. Thankfully, with the blessing of the anesthesia and other painkillers, there was only limited pain throughout the procedure which lasted barely an hour. Even in the post-operation stage, I experienced limited pain.

But physical pain – which can actually be minimized through anesthesia – is only one of the elements that constitute human suffering. While the operation was undergoing, the physical could interface with the mental-emotional suffering; in fact it is the latter that has the greater impact. I guess I am like many other people who would rather not show their private parts to an audience. But inside an OR, one has no choice but strip. The procedure of connecting a catheter to the protruding part of the male body can be so disconcerting. One’s immediate response during this embarrassing moment was to find a way to cover one’s face in shame. Once the catheter is in place – and which needed to get stuck to my body for almost two weeks – there follows extreme discomfort and inconvenience.

However, it could be that the most burdensome suffering that I went through was that connected to the “spiritual crisis” that I underwent. As it happened during the days of the Holy Week in 1983 – when I got abducted, made to disappear and consequently imprisoned – the fear of what eventually could take place made me ask the same question – Why me, Lord? One gets angry at God for allowing this to happen. A sense of despair takes over as one is not sure anymore if God will make an intervention to cure me of my illness as well as minimize my suffering. I was even surprised that on the fifth night at the hospital I could not sleep because I began to lose faith in God’s benevolence. I feared that this could give rise to a doubt of God’s existence.

All these forms of suffering – physical, mental-emotional, spiritual – converged as I lie there in the OR, totally helpless and powerless.

At that moment inside the OR when the convergences created such intense feeling of alienation and despair, I surrendered everything to God’s mercy. And the tears flowed as if my total being was trying its best to purify itself. Indeed, when there is nothing that one’s body can do to cope with the suffering, it finds relief in the flow of uncontrolled tears.

Looking back now, perhaps there was one more element that helped me during the crucial moments of fearing pain, suffering and even the threat of dying inside the OR. I was fully conscious of how I must have looked lying down on that bed. I was practically naked with all kinds of needles stuck to my arms which needed to be extended. Given my health issues, I had become emaciated; from 160 to 120 lbs. I was unshaved and my body was unwashed. From the ceiling of the OR looking down on my body, the monitor would show a “crucifixion” scene. For my body’s position parallels that of Jesus on the cross; except that in my case, I was lying down.

As was my experience as a political prisoner in March of 1983 when the timing – the days of the Holy Week – helped to sustain my faith, the parallel experience was unfolding as the days move to the Holy Week of 2016. Then and now, I went through a horrendous ordeal. While there were moments of doubt, I desperately tried to hold on to my faith. And in the end, it would be this faith that would challenge my weakening belief in God’s mercy and compassion and help to bring full recovery.

But this only brings us back to the question: why do human beings suffer? Corollary questions follow: Did Jesus had to go through such intense human suffering for humanity to be saved? How could His Loving Father allow (or even – will?) that the Son would go through such immense suffering to provide humanity with a passage to God’s reign? Was this whole display of human cruelty (via torture, death by crucifixion, debasement of human dignity) on one hand, and a total surrender on the part of the victim (a totally powerless figure with no one to protect or defend him) on the other hand, necessary at all?

There is something to the Judaeo-Christian belief system that is so beholden to mystery and it is this puzzle that intrigues the believer. A further study into the rise of organized religions in the Middle East, the people’s myths and narratives that found their way to the holy books, the manner in which these texts wove into each other through centuries could help unravel the meanings of what would be the legacy of our doctrinal beliefs. After all meanings can only be better understood within the contexts of those who seek them.

So perhaps, a key to unraveling the deep mystery of all these is to seek the truth as to their meanings – then for our ancestors, now for us, their descendants. What is the whole meaning of human suffering, then?

One clue perhaps is in the manner we interpret binary oppositions: day and night, wrong and right, black and white, male and female, body and soul, this world and the world beyond, etc. It is said that one can only appreciate the beauty of a million glittering stars when there is darkness. It is only because human beings undergo intense pain and suffering that they could also experience immense joy and happiness. The adage goes – no pain, no gain. So one has to suffer first, before one can hope to accomplish anything or transcend present limitations. These may sound shallow, but resilience in the midst of despair can only be nourished with everyday forms of resistance. One such form is to find hope where others refuse or fear to tread.

Suffering is most intense when experienced alone. On our own and fragmented from our family, neighborhood, society, the burden of facing the impact of suffering is heavier. No wonder Jesus enticed his followers to come to Him to unburden themselves. In His Passion, Death and Resurrection, those words – “come to me and unburden yourselves” – would take on greater meaning. In exchange of undergoing the ordeal of Thursday-Friday, Jesus provided us with the hope and joys of Sunday, thus proving that “no greater love than this” is possible.

There is the popular expression – it takes a whole village to educate one child. We could appropriate this into the words – it takes a whole community to heal a sick person. I was very lucky and privileged to have had a whole cast of characters “from the neighborhood” who assisted me through the days of suffering and eventual recovery: the medical personnel (in 4 hospitals in Davao City); members of my family and the congregation to which I belong (specifically the members of DRMC and SATMI students), caregivers, and friends spread across the world (my Facebook Page is truly a gift to nourish kinship/friendship) who lighted candles, offered Masses and prayers, sent/texted good wishes. In a sense, all these people “watched over me” and offered real and virtual presence. Love heals, indeed.

Lastly, it is through suffering that one is enticed to take more cognizance of the spiritual, the contemplative, the intuitive aspects of one’s being. For the believer, the gift of insight into the mysterious only takes place in the dark, the shadows, the fading light, the fear of the unknown.

Tiny, little incidents arose throughout my hospital confinement and the days following my discharge. Two of these may suffice to make my point. As the prostate operation began, the doctor and the nurses inside the OR smelled candle burning. (I was to learn about this later, as I did not smell anything.) I did ask all those I could ask the favor from to please spare me the pain and that prayer was answer. Immediately after the operation, I began to actually see thousands of the tiniest silvery glittering lights flickering across the room. Even as I was wheeled back to my room, they continued to flicker. All in all, that experience must have lasted an hour. Was I only hallucinating? Product of a fertile imagination trying its best to debrief?

Another incident: It had been very difficult to sleep very well since I got confined. I was still not able to walk without any assistance. But on the 19th night since confinement, I fell into “a deep and dreamless sleep” which lasted for eight hours straight. If I was not woken up by the caregiver, given our schedule to have another check-up, it could have still gone on for hours. When I awoke, I realized I just went through an amazing experience. It felt as if an entire year had passed and that I was in another world in another time. Questions quickly arose one after another: Who am I? Where was I? What was I doing in this room? Why were there all sorts of things attached to my body?

And then I heard a voice inside my head – “stand up and walk!” I did.

This was on Holy Wednesday. Thus, four days before Easter Sunday, I already had an experience of my own personal resurrection.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations” and two books on Davao history launched in December 2015. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]