The eminent twentieth century theologian Henri de Lubac writes in his Paradoxes of the Faith that there are two important truths to keep in mind when we encounter suffering. He writes: “All suffering is unique—and all suffering is common. I have to be reminded of the latter truth when I am suffering myself—and of the former truth when I see others suffering.”
The first truth, paradoxically, is the basis for charity, and indeed for rightly-ordered sympathy. When we see another suffering, we can become truly sympathetic only by recognizing that his suffering is not identical to our own (past or present): we must first become humble in the face of this fact, before we can offer to enter into another’s suffering to help bear him through it.
Keeping this truth in mind also acts as a safegaurd against judging falsely (see Matthew 7:1-5, but also 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 and Hebrews 4:12-13). There is, after all, no greater suffering than the separation from God, which is precisely what sin attempts to bring. We may look objectively at a sin, and call it such: and this judgment is true. But we cannot as easily see the subjective, the extenuating circumstances, or even the depth of the temptations to a particular sin as experienced by another person.
Nevertheless, it is also true that all suffering—and indeed, all sin—shares something in common. Chesterton wrote that many men think a sin or crime is horrible because they could never commit it: but in truth, the most atrocious sin is so horrible because any man might have committed it. We never really realize from what depths of depravity we have been spared, nor can we until the last judgment makes all things clear.
Indeed, we often overlook our own sins even when they are evident to others. We are quite good at deceiving ourselves as to the objective nature of sin. It is all to easy to call a sin “not a sin” because it is a sin which we in particular enjoy. This is the other face of Christ’s admonishment against judging, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye” (Luke 6: 42) .
We are quick to excuse our own failings, and thus are slow to realize that these failings deprive us of so much of our potential. In his meditation on the seven last words of Christ from the cross, Fr. George Rutler notes that
“A saint is human, and specifically saints are the only humans, in contrast to sinners who claim to be only human; until a man is a saint, he is less than a man and an exile from his human potential…. By detaching the human being from any definition of being less than human, holiness is the one artful and authentic way to be human. Detachment is a moral crucifixion, as it nails down those impulses and habits that lead the intellect to lie and the imagination to violate and the will to will its own way. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that is, through sanctifying grace, the intellect abjures lies and stands defiantly before armies of bullies and alliances of compromised parliaments; and the graced imagination laughs at fantasies when they come as painted hags or tinsel utopias or the penultimate chapter of a volume on how to be happy by feeling happy.
This reality is expensive, and sin is the method of avoiding such expense. The bargain basement turns out to be much lower than one could possibly have known or imagined or wanted. That is why it is so difficult to believe in hell. It is not beyond belief—it is wondrously beneath belief, and it takes humility to fathom a justice deeper than our altruistic sense of justice” (The Seven Wonders of the World, pp.23).
Our choices have consequences—some good, some bad. All choices ultimately lead us to accept or reject God’s will for us; all choices make us more or less able to respond to God’s grace, and indeed to experience His love as tenderness or torment. They allow us to look past the superficial, indeed to desire to do so, and to see the truth of things, reality as it actually exists. Above all, when we turn away from the night sin with all its hollow promises and illusory dreams, and turn instead towards the light of truth, we begin to see ourselves as we truly are.
Our sufferings are, in a sense, there to remind us of this reality. The Ven. Fulton Sheen writes that:
“Many persons identify themselves with their environment. Because life is good to them, they believe that they are good. They never dwell on eternity because time is so pleasant. When suffering strikes, they become divorced from their pleasant surroundings and are left naked in their own souls. They then see that they were not affable and genial, but irritable and impatient. When the sun of outer prosperity sank, they had no inner light to guide their darkened souls” (Love One Another, pp. 51).
Pain is, as C.S. Lewis notes, “God’s bullhorn” into our lives and our very souls, if we will allow it to be this. A sudden loss has a sobering effect, and we re-evaluate our priorities when we lose someone or something which is close or dear to us. In this sense, suffering has a common purpose in each man’s life.
Our suffering is common to all, and if we will allow anyone else to show us sympathy we must bear in mind that they, too, have suffered. We must allow them to suffer with us, which is often harder than making ourselves to suffer with someone else in their time of misery.
And here, then, is the most important sense in which all our sufferings are in common, the sense which we remember and even celebrate during this Holiest week of the year. When Christ was nailed to the Cross, he took on Himself all our sins—and with them, all of our sufferings. Therefore, whenever we suffer, we can offer that suffering to God, Who has already accepted it and Who passes through it with us: indeed, He took it on Himself in the ultimate act of sympathy, and in the greatest act of love.
 It is interesting to note that even here, there is the urgency to overcome our own sins—and then to help others with theirs! The implication is that we should continue to judge sin as sin, and even to admonish others when they sin: always on the assumption that we are ourselves open to such admonishment, and are doing so from a sense of charity and not of superiority.