As I get older, I see that all of our earthly lives involve some form of tragedy: We must work at jobs we dislike. We are forced out of our jobs. Our spouses are unfaithful. We grow old. We loose our hair. Our teeth fall out. Our feet turn purple. We live in chronic pain. Our children rarely visit. Our memory fades. We get cancer. We die.
There are two ways of dealing with the unavoidable tragedy of human life: hedonism or faith. The first says: “Eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die.” The second says with Jesus: “I would rather not go through the pain and suffering of a righteous life but may Your will rather than mine be done.”
The hedonistic approach is based on a lie -- that the tragic nature of life can be avoided or, at least, the pain can be compensated for with pleasure or numbed out of existence. That’s why most people do not want to talk about death, or see pictures of aborted fetuses or starving Africans, or visit the very old. That’s why most people fill their free time with pleasurable and meaningless activities and avoid the practice of true religion. That’s why so many people parachute out of the long-term suffering that doing what is right often entails. In an unhappy marriage? Get a divorce! Pregnant and don’t want to be? Get an abortion! Don’t like working every day? Quit and become a parasite! In “unbearable” pain? Exercise your “right to die!”
Those who seek holiness take a radically different approach. They carry their crosses every day and do not complain. They seek out those who are suffering and attempt to comfort them. They take personal responsibility for their sins and do what is right even if it adds to their suffering. In a word, they are willing to do hard penance on earth in the hope of meriting eternal life.
To be fair, almost all of us, at least to some degree, are hedonistic. To want pleasure and to avoid pain is a natural human instinct, and to some extent this is a good thing. We need a certain degree of legitimate pleasure or life would be unbearable. No one should want pain for its own sake, and there is nothing wrong with reaching for an Advil when we have a headache. However, to attempt to avoid the normal pain, burdens and suffering of life by shirking our responsibilities to God and to others is sinful. The great irony of life is that those who refuse to carry their crosses will be punished in the next life but those who embrace their crosses out of love for God are heaven bound.
Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).