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     Reflections on the Mystery of Suffering Volume 02 Number 5
Sep/Oct, 1983


Eliminating People who Suffer?

by Dr. Stanley M. Hauerwas, PhD.

A Movie About Retardation

The movie begins. A man and woman stand looking into a baby crib. The baby is never shown. The room is dark and the countenance of the couple is yet darker. They have obviously been through a trauma and are still in shock. The joy and excitement associated with the birth of a child has been crushed from their lives.

They turn toward us and the man speaks. "Don't let this happen to you. Our child was born retarded. He will never play the way other children play. He will not be able to go to school with other children. He will never have an independent existence and will require us to care for him throughout his and our life time. Our lives have been ruined. It is too late for us but not for you." The mother speaks: "Don't let what happened to us happen to you. Be tested early if you think you are pregnant. Maintain good prenatal care under the direction of a physician. Do not smoke, drink, or take any drugs except those absolutely necessary for your health. Please do not let this happen to you - prevent retardation."

Eliminating the Disease or the Subject?

A film very much like this was sponsored a few years ago by the American Association of Retarded Citizens. No doubt the film was made with the best of intentions and concern. Surely we ought to prevent retardation. Certainly as many couples as can ought to be encouraged to maintain good prenatal care. Nevertheless there seems to be something deeply wrong, something disturbing about this film and its message, "Prevent Retardation". Perhaps part of the difficulty involves the dis-analogy between preventing retardation and preventing cancer, polio, or heart diseases, as these latter diseases exist independent of the subjects having the diseases. The disease can be eliminated without eliminating the subject of the disease. But the same is not true of the retarded. To eliminate retardation means to eliminate the subject. To say what is wrong with such a policy involves some of the profoundest questions of human existence, our relationship to God and our assumptions about the nature and necessity of suffering.

Why Prevent Suffering?

It is surely obvious that we should seek to prevent retardation. To challenge that assumption would be equivalent to questioning our belief that the world is round or that love is a good thing. But like so many of our obvious beliefs) if we ask why they seem so obvious, we often feel unable to supply an answer. Part of the reason it seems obvious that we ought to prevent retardation is the conviction that we ought to prevent suffering. No one should will that a child should endure an illness. No one should will that another person should suffer from hunger. No one should will that a child should be born retarded. That suffering should be avoided is a belief as deep as any we have.

Yet like many other "obvious" beliefs, the assumption that suffering should always be prevented, if analyzed, becomes increasingly less certain. Because it implies eliminating subjects who happen to be retarded should at least suggest to us that something is wrong with our straightforward assumption that suffering should always be avoided or, if possible, eliminated.

To Be Human is to Suffer.

That sounds wise. That sounds right - that is - true to the facts. But we should not be too quick to affirm it as a norm. Questions remain as to what kind of suffering should be accepted and how should it be integrated into our lives. By directing our attention toward the retarded perhaps we can better understand what and how suffering is never to be "accepted" and yet why it is unavoidable in our lives.

Why We Suffer

To ask why we suffer makes the questioner appear either terribly foolish or extremely arrogant. It seems foolish to ask since in fact we DO suffer and no sufficient reason can be given to explain that fact. Indeed, if it were explained, suffering would be denied some of its power. The question seems arrogant because it seeks to put us in the position of eating from the tree of good and evil. Only God knows the answer to such questions. Our task is to learn not to ask them, but rather to try to make the best of the fact that suffering goes along with being finite and, perhaps, sinful beings.

Without denying that the question of why we suffer can be foolish and pretentious, I think it is worth asking since it has such an obvious answer: we suffer because we are incomplete beings who depend on one another for our existence. Indeed the matter can be put more strongly since we depend upon others not only for our survival but also for our identity. Suffering is built into our condition because it is literally true that we exist only to the extent that we sustain, or "suffer", the existence of others. This is exactly contrary to cherished assumptions. We believe that our identity derives from our independence, our self-possession.

Our Need for the Other

The irony is, however, that our neediness is also the source of our greatest strength, for our need requires the cooperation and love of others from which derives our ability not only to live but to flourish. Our identity, far from deriving from our self-possession, or our self-control, comes from being de-possessed of those powers that promise only illusory power. Believing otherwise, fearful of our sense of need, by our attempt to deny our reliance on others, we become all the more subject to those powers. This has particularly significant implications for our relations with the retarded since we "naturally" disdain those who do not or cannot cover up their neediness. Prophets like the retarded only remind us of the insecurity hidden in our false sense of self-possession.

We suffer because we are inherently creatures of need. This does not explain, much less justify, our suffering or the evil we endure. But it does help us understand why the general policy to prevent suffering is at least odd as a general policy. Our task is to prevent unnecessary suffering, but the hard question is to know what constitutes unnecessary suffering. It is even more difficult when the question concerns another as in the case of the retarded.

Do the Retarded Suffer from Being Retarded?

Are we right to assume that the retarded are suffering by being retarded? Certainly they suffer retardation, but do they suffer from being retarded? No doubt, like everyone, the retarded suffer. Like us they have accidents. Like us they have colds, sores, and cancer. Like us they are subject to natural disasters. Like us they die. So there is no doubt the retarded suffer, but the question is whether they suffer from being retarded.

Certainly most are able to see that they are different than many of us, but there is no reason to think they would on their own come to understand their condition as "retardation" or that they are in some decisive way suffering. They may even perceive that there are some things some people do easily which they can do only with great effort or not at all, but that in itself is not sufficient reason to attribute to them great suffering due to their being retarded.

Who Causes Suffering

We persist in the notion that the retarded are suffering and suffering so much from being retarded that it would be better for them not to exist than to have to bear such disability. Perhaps what we assume is not that the retarded suffer from being retarded but rather, because they are retarded, they will suffer from being in a world like ours. They will suffer from inadequate housing, inadequate medical care, inadequate schooling, lack of love and care. They will suffer from discrimination as well as cruel kidding and treatment from unfeeling peers. All this is certainly true, but it is not an argument for preventing retardation in the name of preventing suffering; rather it is an argument for changing the nature of the world in the interest of preventing such needless suffering we impose on the retarded. Too often the suffering we wish to spare them is the result of our unwillingness to change our lives so that those disabled might have a better life.

Need, Loneliness, and the Retarded

As much as we fear suffering we fear more the loneliness that accompanies it. We try to deny our neediness as much, if not more so, to ourselves as to others. We seek to be strong. W e seek to be self-possessed. W e seek to deny that we depend on others for our existence. W e will be self-reliant and we resent and avoid those who do not seek to be like us -the strong. W e will be friends to one another only so long as we promise not to impose seriously our sufferings on the others. Of course, we willingly enter into some of our friends' suffering - indeed to do so only reinforces our sense of strength.

That we avoid the sufferer is not because we are deeply unsympathetic or inhumane, but because of the very character of suffering. By its very nature suffering alienates us not only from one another but from ourselves, especially suffering which is not easily integrated into our ongoing projects or hopes. To suffer is to have our identity threatened physically, psychologically, and morally. Thus our suffering even makes us unsure who we are.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we should have trouble with the suffering of others. None of us willingly seeks to enter into the loneliness of others. W e fear such loneliness may result in loss of control of our own life. We feel we must be very strong to be able to help the weak and needy. We may be right about that but we also may fail to be able to give the kind of help they really need. Too often we seek to do something rather than first simply learn how to be with, to be present to, the sufferer in his or her loneliness. W e especially fear, if not dislike, those whose suffering is the kind for which we can do nothing.

The retarded, therefore, are particularly troubling for us. Even if they do not suffer by being retarded they are certainly people in need. Even worse, they do not try to hide their needs. They are not self-sufficient, they are not self-possessed, they are in need. Even more they do not evidence the proper shame for being so. They simply assume that they are what they are and they need to provide no justification for being such. It is almost as if they have been given a natural grace to be free from the regret most of us feel for our neediness.

How Christians Respond

Quite simply, the challenge of learning to know, be with, and care for the retarded is nothing less than learning to know, be with, and love God. God's face is the face of the retarded, his body is the body of the retarded, his being is that of the retarded. For the God we Christians must learn to worship is not a god of self-sufficient power, a god whose self-possession is such that he needs no one; rather he is a God who needs a people, who needs a son. Absoluteness of being or power is not a work of the God we have come to know through the cross of Christ.

That is why in the face of the retarded we are offered an opportunity to see God, for like God they offer us an opportunity of recognizing the character of our neediness. In truth the retarded in this respect are but an instance of the potential we each have for one another. That the retarded are singled out is only an indication of how they can serve as a prophetic sign of our true nature as creatures destined to need God and, thus, one another.

Our learning to share our life with God is no doubt difficult it must be at least as onerous as learning that we can share life with the retarded. But that such a sharing of our sufferings as well as our joys is necessary cannot be doubted. For a world where there is no unpatterned unpurposeful suffering would be devoid of the means to grow out of our selfishness and into love. That is why those who worship such a God are obligated to live confident that we can live well with those whose difference from ourselves we have learned to characterize by the unfortunate label "retarded". For if we did not so learn to live we know we would be decisively retarded: retarded in our ability to turn ourselves to others' needs, regardless of the cost.

Dr. Stanley M. Hauerwas, PhD. is a professor of Ethics and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. This article is excerpted by Flavian Dougherty, C.P. from Dr. Hauerwas' presentation at the Third International Congress on the Meaning of Human Suffering conducted by Stauros International. Dr. Hauerwas has been a legal guardian of mentally impaired persons and has extensive knowledge of and experience with such persons.

Editor's Note:

  • The term 'retarded' has been used in this article because it is still in common usage. However, the proper designation is "a person who is mentally impaired, or mentally handicapped."