Ah, Lent; that time of year when Catholics turn suffering into a competition. Who can give up the most onerous and yet imaginative thing possible? “You’ve given up meat? That’s cute, I’ve given up eating all solid foods and now devote all my life to adopting stray badgers and raising them as my children!” I jest, and yet…there’s an odd characteristic of Catholics that makes us sort of enjoy being able to suffer more than someone else. Which, looking from the outside in, is rather crazy and counterproductive.
We’re not alone; this is something that Catholics have in common with the military. A common form of conversation in military circles is the “who had it worse” game. Who had a longer ruck march this week? Who was on a patrol base without food the longest? Who had the most sadistic leaders? Who had the rainiest JRTC rotation? It’s this odd pride that we take in being the most miserable. Basically like Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, but somehow more sad.
And why do we do this? Is it from a sense of validation? That our sufferings need to mean something otherwise it was all a waste of time? This of course can be a massive temptation – to tie it entirely to the idea of redemptive suffering. Sure, your voluntary decision to not put sugar in your coffee for a month is really doing a lot to heal the wounds of the body of Christ. Apropos of nothing, I need a sarcasm emoji.
But this is the great trap of suffering: that we can focus too much on it rather than the real end state. Sacrifice in Lent is supposed to bring us into a state where we are mindful of the suffering of Christ. To do that, we cannot turn inward, but instead we must turn outward. We must look to the body of Christ that is here on this earth – our fellow humans – and minister to them. That is the real sacrifice: putting aside self for the other.
Similarly, in the military, suffering for suffering’s sake is just sheer stupidity. You rucked twelve miles in order to build endurance for combat. You went without food because someone failed to do their job and resource logistics properly. You had a sadistic leader because sometimes the military doesn’t manage their people well and toxic leaders slip through. And it rained at JRTC because it’s Louisiana, that’s what it does. The point of suffering in the military is to either build endurance or replicate combat operations. If you are suffering for the sake of suffering, it’s probably a sign that you have a bad leader – or that you yourself are a bad leader.
This Lent, let’s orient ourselves correctly when it comes to suffering. Neither God nor our troops appreciate needless suffering. So why should we?
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He writes at The Angry Staff Officer. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
Cover image: Minnesota National Guardsmen with the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division complete a ruck march to earn the Expert Infantryman Badge at Forward Operating Base Gerber, in Kuwait, on Jan. 27, 2012. The Expert Infantryman Badge is awarded to soldiers who hold infantry or special forces military occupational specialties and complete a series of tests. DoD photo by Cpl. Trisha Betz, U.S. Army. (Released)