Like many people, I have always marveled at how internally strong and determined many saints were. I cannot believe how they were able to overcome great hardships and terrible sufferings, not by finding some trick to avoid these things, but by learning how to use them constructively.
As weak human beings, we often fail to use suffering and hardship constructively because we go into the game already deciding that these things can only be bad for us on many levels. Rather than see the pain around the corner as a potential blessing for ourselves and others, we label it as a dreadful thing such that, when we actually face it, we have already decided that nothing good could ever come from it.
If we think about it, however, we can benefit from suffering in three ways.
Union with the Cross
Obviously, through our simple suffering on matters far less dramatic than Our Lord's Passion we can offer sacrifice to He Who gave the greatest Sacrifice of all. We are all called to carry our crosses and to accept that following our Master expects nothing less.
Appreciation and Gratitude For Our Lives
If our lives were a series of joyful exchanges, we would not have a comparative position on which to measure our relative fortune and blessings. Imagine a completely white background. One cannot discern contrast or appreciate variation. The good and bad times in our lives are that contrasting variation that make us appreciate each. While visiting San Diego one time I met a cabdriver who exclaimed that he was sick of sun and blue skies. I thought that he was crazy, but I guess too much of anything with no variation, is a bad thing in the end.
We can only appreciate our health when we consider our illnesses. We can only appreciate our money when we consider our poverty. We can only appreciate our fortune when we consider our misfortune. We can only appreciate our loved ones when we consider their absence. Above all, we can only appreciate Our Lord when we consider both the temporary earthly loss of Him and the far more terrible and unspeakable eternal loss of Him.
Other Peoples' Pain
When we suffer, we have the opportunity to become beacons of holy patience, showing all who bother to look just how one should deal with pain and sorrow while fixating on Christ. Obviously, we all fail to a lesser or greater extent in this office, but we must continue to try. Also, when we are sick we help the healthy appreciate their health. When we are poor we help those with money appreciate their money. When we are lonely we help the loved appreciate their loved ones. When we fail we help others appreciate their success. We must not, therefore, see suffering as merely some curse raining down on our lives. Such thinking necessarily creates a selfish victim syndrome whereby all we are about is our pain and end up full of resentment. "Why me?" is not in the lexicon of the true follower of Christ.
Additionally, when we experience another's suffering and pain, we receive the opportunity to extend a helping hand, to reach out as Christ so often did. I was hungry, naked and sick and you gave me food, clothing and care. I was lonely and you visited me. Our suffering, then, is an opportunity for both our own and other's sanctification!
The secret of following Christ is loving the cross, and the secret of loving the cross is appreciating what the cross brings to our lives and the lives of those around us.
How can we become vain, arrogant or insolent while holding our cross? The cross is a reminder that we must remain humble, unselfish, generous, patient and kind. One cannot hold it and be resentful or angry at the same time.
In the end, how we handle and perceive pain and suffering will determine our eternal fate. We can choose to see these things as baggage holding us down in the pit of resentment, anger, despair or self-pity, in which case we will be too self-preoccupied to see God above and in others. Conversely, we can choose to see these as wings carrying us close to God, in which case we will fly to a higher union with Our Lord and have no choice but to see Him above and in others. The ultimate choice is up to us. In a sense, the Via Dolorosa in our lives runs two ways, up or down. Which way we go is truly up to each of us.