The Betrothed [book selection from ‘Year of the Spouse’] is a novel about suffering. The young couple, Renzo and Lucia, suffer separation, arrest, exile, abduction, pestilence, and despair before they are able to be together. Their suffering isn’t unique: suffering is a part of human life. We live in a society uncomfortable about suffering. Fast food and prepackaged meals prevent the mildest rumblings in our stomachs. Smartphones ensure we are never bored. There are even services at theme parks so we don’t have to wait to ride roller coasters.
Our fear of pain is killing us. Doctors prescribe narcotic medications more than three hundred percent more often than they did a decade ago. Partially as a result, the number of people who die from prescription pain medication overdoses each year has more than doubled since 1999. There is even a growing call to allow euthanasia so that patients can have “death with dignity,” as if suffering itself is somehow shameful.
We bring these norms into our homes. We make special meals so our children won’t have to eat things they don’t like or go hungry. We buy them toys because we don’t want them to have unmet desires. We clean for them when they don’t like to clean for themselves. All because we don’t want our children to suffer an unpleasant reality of doing something they don’t want to do.
No one wants to suffer. But stories like The Betrothed remind us that there is much to be gained through suffering. As St. John Paul II encourages us in Salvifici Doloris, suffering opens us to many of Christianity’s most important virtues. Through his suffering, doughty Renzo finds the patience to wait for Providence. Innocent Lucia wins the strength of spirit to stand up for her convictions. The lovers’ suffering brings gifts to others, too. Lucia’s harrowing forty-eight hours with the Unnamed leads directly to his conversion. In turn, that conversion changes the lives of the people whose lives depend on the Unnamed. Renzo’s desperate search in the lazaretto brings consolation to Father Cristoforo during the final days of his life.
In The Betrothed, we see that suffering, though difficult, opens us to Christ’s redeeming presence in our lives. But if in our homes we have carefully insulated against discomfort and pain, when do our children gain these special graces that come from suffering? It isn’t that moms aren’t willing to suffer for their children. We have sore muscles from carrying around fussy preschoolers. Our backs ache from bending to clean up after our children. We haven’t seen our friends in months because our children don’t like babysitters. We’re bleary-eyed because we rise with our toddlers before six in the morning. We’re out of shape because we are too busy ferrying kids to lacrosse practice to find time to exercise ourselves. Sometimes our spiritual lives suffer because we’re too frenetic to still ourselves to pray.
But if we’re the ones who always suffer in our children’s places, we hid the pain of life from our children. We leave them unprepared for life in the fallen world in which we live. More importantly, we deprive them of the virtues hard won through suffering, the graces of bringing joy to someone else’s life through their own discomfort.
It is a beautiful and natural desire to protect our children from suffering. Still, we must never forget that a family is a community of persons. Every person in a family has his or her own unique needs and desires. Including Mom. When we continually put our fundamental needs on hold so our children never suffer, we teach them that their needs and desires are always more important than the needs and desires of other people. In the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus tells us that whoever wishes to follow him must deny himself. Putting someone else’s needs before our own is a non-negotiable part of the Christian life.
It is our job to teach self-sacrifice to our children, not just by example, but by allowing them to suffer as well.
What a gift to let our children suffer so someone else doesn’t have to – and to let them suffer for our sake every once in a while. They might learn charity by skipping a fun night out so we don’t have to drive. Or develop humility from cleaning up after a younger sibling. They might discover patience from reading themselves a book until we are ready to wake up on Saturday morning. Or stamina from finishing a long walk without asking for us to pick them up. Even small sacrifices and mild suffering can remind our children to see the needs of others and help them practice the virtues they need for the Christian life.
At the end of The Betrothed, the lovers finally conclude that, “What [troubles] come, through our fault or otherwise, trust in God goes far to take away their sting, and it makes them a useful preparation for a better life.” When we allow our children to suffer, we prepare them to be better members of the human community and begin the fit them for Heaven.
Alison Solove has a master’s degree in English from Oxford University. She spends her days taking care of her family, volunteering at the library, and teaching current events to seniors at assisted living communities. Alison lives in Denver with her husband and two children.
This piece was originally published in the ‘Year of the Spouse’ Journal.