Suffering (Part 1 of 3): The Man on the Bench


Our response to suffering speaks volumes about our interior state.

It reveals how we see others, ourselves; the needs of others, compared to our own desires.

Here I wish to reference a difficult experience I had after a shift at work which lasted into the night.

Tired, I walked over to a bus shelter and noticed a man sitting in an awkward position on a bench across the street. After watching for a little while it was easy to see that he was unconscious.

What happened next shook me deeply: it both showed how callous we can be towards our brothers and sisters, but also revealed my own coldness towards their suffering.

First, I noticed how a group of people standing nearby totally ignored his presence.

Second, a couple walked up and sat beside him; the woman proceeded to rifle through his pockets and remove their contents.

Afterward, they left.

Third. When I asked if the group nearby knew him, two women came over. One said, “Hey that looks like Rick, is that Rick?” By this point the man had fallen from the bench onto the ground. She kicked him over so his face was upwards; it wasn’t Rick.

They left laughing.

Fourth. A woman stopped by when she saw me stooped by his side and asked, “Is he ok?” I replied I didn’t know, I didn’t think so.” So she said, “I think he’s just resting!” with a hint of positivity. I just shook my head, disgruntled, “I think it’s worse than that.”

Fifth. A man with a bicycle stopped now and asked if he could help. He proceeded to hit the man with his bike tire repeatedly in attempts to awake him. He then force fed him some liquids and placed the limp man in a terrible position on the bench. When he heard police sirens nearby, he suddenly fled.

Sixth, seemingly the only beautiful witness was a teenager who stopped by and asked with a look of concern if everything was Ok. When I told him I’d already called an ambulance he smiled apologetically and left.

Seventh. The woman who robbed the unconscious man returned. She sat around asking me for a smoke, or if I had a light while I was trying to talk with the paramedics on the phone.

The ambulance arrived in good time and they told my help was no longer needed, so I left.

Upon reflecting on this incident later I realised that each person who stopped by represented a different internal state, most of which I have held myself at one time or another in my life.

The first people who just ignored him represented those with hearts which have never been lit aflame with sacrificial love. They saw no personal gain, and only annoyance in going to help the man. He was simply not worth their time.

Admittedly, this was my first reaction.

Love which cannot sacrifice, is not love at all.

The woman who robbed him represents all the times that we take advantage of those we love when they are vulnerable.

Whether we use subtle social pressure to get our own way, or by taking from the other intimacy that was never given. We have all, at one time or another, used the predicament of another person for our own selfish gain.

The fourth woman who stopped to offer the suggestion that, “Maybe he’s just sleeping!” represents our tendency to gloss over real suffering with happy-go-lucky slogans and meaningless cheer.

Every time we shrug off the very real suffering of another with pseudo-positivity, we offer them a cold shoulder as relief from their pain.

Pop psychologists love this kind of advice. They tell us that to improve our lives and eradicate our struggles we need only think happy thoughts or eat more green things!

The kind of love that lifts the burden of the other involves lifting a heavy, cumbersome, and precious cross.

It involves most importantly, entering into the pain of the other.

The man on the bicycle represents a curious middle ground. He was totally willing to help, but having no expertise about how exactly to help, did what was eventually totally unhelpful. His intention was there, but his lack of expertise and knowledge only served to worsen the situation. It is safe to say that spending time discerning whether our interventions are really helping a given situation would be fruitful time to spend indeed!

Knowing when we have the capacity to make a difference, and when our inexperience will lead the situation into an even greater problem than the first, is true wisdom.

I left that night on my bus, significantly later and more tired then I had expected, and thought about what had just happened. I was one step away from simply ignoring the situation and leaving without a second thought. When I witnessed my own reluctance to help the helpless, it shocked me most of all.

It motivated a serious reflection:

Where is my compassion?: I who claim to be a Catholic, devoted to Love itself.
Why was I so eager to leave this man to his lot in life? To be the unconcerned passerby in the story of the Good Samaritan?

As a Catholic I also identify with the fact that the risen Christ is present in every human being: to abandon any man or woman is to abandon Christ himself.

If I claim to care about humanity, while ignoring the very real suffering of those I know, see, and encounter, I am a liar, a hypocrite.

There should be no suffering in this world so foreign to me that I will be unwilling to at least acknowledge the struggle and the pain, to offer my presence and self-less gift.

May God kindle and fan the flames within our hearts to burn with compassion for all our brothers and sisters.


  1. When is the need the call? I think that your first reaction was completely human. But like the one in the scriptures who said no…then did what was necessary…that is what counts. As for the others, perhaps this experience was for your call….and not theirs. Another time, it will be someone else’s call, and not yours. And perhaps the person in question needed certain consequences for choices they had made. All these people, including the victim and others are held in God.

    • Hey Jennifer!

      Indeed, we cannot always meet every need. And it can be wreckless to do so, as I showed with the man on the bike.

      But being indifferent neither presupposes action nor inaction. Indifference is apathy towards a creature created in the image of God!

      What God’s plan was I cannot know, but to whitewash the sin of indifference under the guise of God’s greater plan is to undervalue the meaning and consequences of our actions.

      Judgement is not mine, but it is reserved to God.

      • Hmmm…I guess I don’t see the sin of indifference in this situation. I don’t see apathy either. Perception is in the eye of the beholder. What I see is each person acting from a place that I know nothing about. I can only know what my business is…

        Fun to contemplate….

  2. PS….what if we practiced focussing on the most respectful interpretation of others’ actions. Jesus did this in his last moments on earth…..

    Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.

  3. Double PS….LOL. I’m glad I said that because I need to practice that myself. A constant reminder to put on the mind of Christ.

    • What is the mind of Christ?

      Whenever we reference the words of Jesus we must keep them within the context of the entire gospel. No other interpretation can be correct. Yes Jesus begged the Father to forgive his tormentors, but He also made it very clear that we will be accountable for our actions:

      “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ ” Matt 25:41-43

      Or read also Luke 16:19-31, the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

      To accept only parts of Christ’s message, is to reject Christ as a whole. (John 14:23,24)

      I do not see any benefit in seeing others’ actions in the “most respectful interpretation” anymore than I seek to interpret others’ actions in the least favourable light.

      I seek to see them in Truth, and truth alone.

      I cannot judge these people, this in entirely true. I merely seek to communicate truth.

      • Hi Adam,

        If you check the catholic catechism,there are four ways to interpret scripture. You are only at the first level….the literal. To only use the first level, you will find yourself stuck in your own mind…so perhaps you might look at the scriptures you quoted from each of those four levels before you draw your final conclusions.

      • From the catechism

        The senses of Scripture

        115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

        116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”83

        117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

        1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.84

        2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.85

        3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86

        118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

        The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
        The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.87

      • Also need 119 of catechism

        119 “It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”88 (94, 113)

      • Indeed the scriptures are not text books speaking only to historical facts. But with that said, as the Catechism states, as you have drawn my attention to, “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

        Here again we see, a purely spiritual or allegorical interpretation is not rooted in truth.

        In addition, the consequences detailed by a truly spiritual reading of the scripture are all the more real, intense, and irrefutable. For the spiritual gives rise to the material and is eternal, unlike our material world. So spiritual judgement is far more terrible than worldly judgement.

        So even if we interpret these scriptures in a purely spiritual sense, then the consequences would be even more acute.

        There is a very common tendency to take Jesus’ more blunt or seemingly harsh statements and to consider them like they are half intended threats that are really just big bluffs. Or to reduce them to scary (but untrue) stories that parents tell their children to make sure that they behave.

        It is hard for me to believe that the Son of God would be facetious when speaking of something so important as eternal judgment.

  4. Well Adam, it is clear that we know different aspects of the Divine. You can only come out of the experience that you have. Wishing you well.


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