Open thread: The fetishization of suffering

by Grania

Jerry wrote a post years ago on Mother Teresa that has proved to be the most popular post ever on this website (even more popular than the one on penis sizes, which is quite remarkable given that this is humanity we are talking about). Jerry pointed out, as did Christopher Hitchens before him and Aroup Chatterjee before that, that the sainted nun had a bizarre and twisted taste for suffering. Only the religiously convicted or a sadist could spin terminal illness and pain as something to be valued.

When I see people suffer, I feel so helpless! It’s difficult, but the only way I find is to say, “God loves you.”
I always connect this by saying to them, “It’s a sign He can kiss you.”
I remember I told this to a woman who was dying of cancer with her small children surrounding her. I didn’t know which was the greater agony: the agony of leaving the children, or the agony of her body.
I told her, “This is a sign that you have got so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can share His Passion with you, He can kiss you.”
She joined her hands and said, “Mother, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.” She understood so beautifully! My Life for the Poor

Mother Teresa was by no means alone in her idealization of physical and mental anguish. Many religions have rituals that are abusive and damaging  ranging from the relatively benign whirling Dervishes (Mevlevi) whose ritual spinning creates a giddy “spiritual” euphoria, to self-flagellation and slashing practiced by several religions.

I was raised as a Catholic, and while I can say that Mother Teresa’s views are not representative of all Catholics’; she was not an outlier either. Some people still actually think like this. There are times I wish that I had done Psychology 101 at university just to make sense of all the masochism that goes into this kind of thought.

On top of this, as John Hamill points out, the organisation that these people belong to controls thousands of schools and hospitals around the world. Wrap your head around this and you can start to see why their anti-Choice, anti-contraception, anti-euthanasia and anti same-sex equality activists are utterly unmoved by the extreme suffering that their positions create.

PS: Thank you Jerry for giving me zero hours warning about writing a post.



  1. RossR
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t do Mother Teresa the honour of calling her masochistic. She didn’t value suffering in herself, she wore fine robes and took her own ailments to genuine hospitals. She was quite simply a sadist.

    • nicky
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Pertinent point, its was others’ suffering…

  2. Posted July 20, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Fully agree with Grania. The masochist attitudes within Catholicism are not ubiquitous but they aren’t niche either. I recall my Mother always used to tell the kids in our house to “offer it up” when we got hurt … as if Heaven would gratefully accept the suffering of children as a welcome offering.

    • claudia baker
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Yup, my mother used to say that too. It always struck me as odd, as a kid, that it would somehow make g*d happy if I was suffering. Though not in these exact words, I remember thinking: god is such a dick.

    • Glenda
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

      Yup. Me too. I found kneeling for very long, especially at rosary time, caused pain in my lower back and complained. My father would say “Offer it up.”

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 21, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Makes that version of God sound more like a Dark Lord that won the struggle between Good and Evil.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    The Nevada Parole Board just cut the Juice loose.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      There’s just not enough suffering in 9 years in the clink! 😎

  4. Randy schenck
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Having just recently been in the hospital and unfortunately run by the Catholics, I noticed they have these little jebus on a cross hanging over every door in the place. Whoever got that contract, making all those useless little trinkets probably did okay. They also always ask when you check in – Have any religious preference? I always say no but they don’t remove the trinkets from my room. They monitor pain on a 1 to 10 scale but who’s scale do we go by?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      They ask about religious preference so they can administer the Last Rites in case they malpractice your ass into a coma. 🙂

      • Randy schenck
        Posted July 20, 2017 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

        They didn’t get me but unfortunately the guy in the room next to me died. Lots of bells and noise preceded that event. I saw the guy in a white collar later but that was about it.

  5. chris moffatt
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Suffering is good – standard catholic doctrine; and the reason why, until it was outlawed, sadistic beatings were routinely handed out in catholic schools – especially by jesuits and irish christian brothers (may they all rot in hell).

  6. Paul S
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Not a bad post for zero notice. The very thought of the suffering mother Teresa caused by her lack of compassion is high on my rant-o-meter.
    Good thing I’m home alone.

    • Posted July 20, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      I actually don’t believe she had no compassion. She just thought that it was ultimately an ennobling experience.


      • Ken Kukec
        Posted July 20, 2017 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        For those at the Home for the Dying Destitute in Calcutta, maybe — not for those, like her, staying at high-end clinics in the First World where analgesics are liberally dispensed.

      • BJ
        Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

        Well, I think it’s hard to tell. You’ve probably watched Hitchens’ documentary about her called “Hell’s Angel,” but even if you haven’t it’s difficult to tell whether she thought suffering was ennobling, she just wanted to keep all the charity money to herself and her cronies, or perhaps even both. At the end of the day, I do agree that she thought making her patients suffer somehow gave them nobility and brought them closer to god.

        What really disgusts and enrages me is that her practices continued for decades unabated because nobody wished to discuss them.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted July 22, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        So, Bojaxhiu had a warped idea of reality (I won’t say ‘insane’ because it didn’t quite reach that).

        Still no reason why anybody else should ever suffer to bolster her illusions. To borrow a phrase from the Hitch, fuck that.


  7. nicky
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    The best part of pain and suffering is when it stops. In that sense some suffering is ‘good’, meseems.

  8. Pliny the in Between
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm, Reference Mother Teresa and penis size? Piece of cake:

    And for you Dr Who fans:

  9. Chris Laraia
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t the Buddhist mantra “life is suffering” worth considering? I think there’s some truth to it. If stress can be felt as a form of suffering, than wouldn’t all the frustrated desires of our lives be a kind of suffering? Even if we have the stoicism or luck to keep it at bay most of the time, learning how to cope with disappointment, ill-health, bad luck etc can have practical benefits that admonishments to “be positive” might not have.

    • somer
      Posted July 21, 2017 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      It becomes pathological when suffering per se is seen as part of an unchangeable created order and what god wants. Hence in past centuries the church officially opposed anaesthesia and many other medical improvements designed to reduce suffering as contrary to god’s wishes. This is not to say all or most catholics or christians think this way but some do. The attitude that we should seek out suffering for its own sake or encourage others to do so is pathological.

      • Posted July 21, 2017 at 7:15 am | Permalink

        Agreed. My very Catholic mother had absorbed this idea that suffering brought one closer to God, and therefore tended to endure her suffering far longer than necessary. I firmly believe that this led to her death at the relatively young age of 60.

        Excellent comment by you.

    • Posted July 21, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      It is worth reflecting that suffering is unavoidable in general. However, it does not follow from that that any particular bout of suffering should be endured in any given way.

    • Posted September 4, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      I agree.

      I am neither a Buddhist nor a Christian, yet I was brought up with Jack London’s Love of Life and other perfectly secular masterpieces advocating endurance of pain. The official Communist culture of my country was full of stories of Communist heroes, with or without quotation marks. E.g. Julius Fucik before being killed by the Nazis reportedly wrote that pain is a true sister of life – a statement almost identical with the Buddhist mantra. I think now that the stress on endurance in that culture made more sense than it seemed back then.

      The struggle to avoid all pain ultimately brings more pain. I know migraine sufferers who have brought themselves to the point when no painkiller is effective. I also know people who, after taking decongestants too easily, are now addicted to them.

  10. Linda Calhoun
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    A significant percentage of people vastly enjoy watching other people suffer. I would put it at 40%; it may be lower in some place and higher in others.

    People who are not like that tend to see those who are as dysfunctional, but they don’t see themselves as dysfunctional.

    However, everyone likes to see themselves as “good” people. Christianity gives those who enjoy the suffering of others the perfect out, so that they never have to face what they really are. Christianity tells them that suffering brings people closer to Jesus and salvation. So, if you enjoy watching other people suffer, you’re really a loving person because you want to see the sufferers saved and have “eternal life”.

    I think this is a lot of why Republicans in the US don’t really give a rat’s ass that people will lose their health insurance. So many Republicans are Christians, and so many Christians are Republicans because they share this viewpoint about cruelty. It’s lots of fun for them.


  11. Jenny Haniver
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    This is just so sick, though nothing new. I’m collecting quotes from MT, the bible, and elsewhere on the valorization of suffering and poverty, so found some good ones here and in links. In one link I was taken to this website Mystics of the Church for a welter of sadomasochistic asceticism.
    And as Ross R points out, Mother Teresa was a sadist, not a masochist. And Protestants can be just as twisted about all this.

    But the valorization of suffering and poverty goes beyond religion and seeps into secular society (in many NGOs and domestic social welfare programs), though usually, if one scratches the surface, there’s some “spiritual” component to justify this way of elevating, I mean distancing, such individuals and groups from our personal lives, except through acts of charity, which often keep the “Other” subjugated and suffering. And it also brainwashes the sufferer into thinking they’re a morally deficient person if they complain. Certainly, that’s what Mother Teresa’s “charity” was all about — it sure wasn’t about helping those people get on their feet and improve their lot.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      And, hey, what is the celebration of the Eucharist all about? the prime example in Christianity of fetishizing suffering.

      • Craw
        Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

        No, I think that’s mostly about fetishizing cannibalism.

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted July 21, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          I think you’re right. Theophagy was a feature of many ‘primitive’ religions.

  12. Kevin
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I have nothing of substance to add to this great conversation, but just want to highlight the challenge of clearly articulating ‘fetishization’.

  13. Sebastian
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    My sense is that this kind of suffering fetish may have its – to some degree valid – core in some sort of ancient wisdom about people often experiencing personal growth (character, mind) during or after a period of suffering. In other words, they come out stronger on the other end – at least psychologically.

    I’m far from defending M. Theresa’s actions or Catholicism’s doctrins and I’m by no means suggesting that any preventable suffering shouldn’t be prevented. I’m merely suggesting there might be a diamond in this particular religious dunghill: people who have to suffer anyways, might use their suffering to ‘find’ themselves, strengthen and expand their minds.
    (Obviously this shouldn’t be enforced by any religious doctrin but a personal outlook).

    • Posted July 20, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      If there were punishments for people like Mother Teresa after death, there should be a place for her worse than Hell. A religion that promotes “suffering is good”, as long as it’s someone other than yourself doing the suffering needs a special hereafter.

      For religious folk to collect money to alleviate suffering, but then to use it for other purposes is despicable. Just recently, there was an article about money intended for use by the Vatican Children’s Hospital being used instead to renovate one of the Vatican residences. Damn them!

    • rickflick
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      That’s always been my feeling too.

    • Craw
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Most people in most places for most of history suffered a lot. Doctrines that palliate or give solace for that suffering have an obvious appeal. I think it is actually rather dismissive of the ubiquity of suffering, save for those of us in the modern first world, to ignore or dismiss the point you are making. Catholic doctrine has hijacked this impulse to find something redeeming in suffering for impure purposes, but the impulse itself is not impure.

      • Sebastian
        Posted July 21, 2017 at 4:41 am | Permalink

        I would add that there is still plenty of suffering in the modern first world, too.
        Even if we look beyond all the unsolved medical problems (cancer etc.), there is a lot of psychological suffering that doesn’t seem to get alleviated by wealthy modern lifestyle. Just think about addiction and depression issues that hit jaded, wealthy people in our societies. Also, people are still dying – sometimes way before their time – leaving behind grieving relatives and friends.

        IMHO there can be lots of value in learning how to deal with and accept inevitable suffering. Altough, clearly M.T. and the Catholics have strayed way off any sensible path:

        “‘Mother, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.’ She understood so beautifully!”

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 21, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      I can’t help but think that a universe where personal growth requires suffering first… is not a universe any sane person would opt into, any more than a sane person would undergo a painful operation without any kind of palliative or anaesthetic. If personal growth is so great, then surely a more urgent requirement is to offload the unwanted painful baggage.

      The closest I can get to the sentiment is a pragmatic tolerance of the pain, simply because it’s inevitable. Certainly not outright praise or respect for it.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 22, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, it’s character building.

      Look, if you’re stuck with the suffering, then that polite fiction may help to alleviate the torment just the teeniest little bit. It’s what you use when there’s nothing else available. Whole societies have been based on the idea that adversity has somehow strengthened people. It helps to make it bearable.

      But it’s completely insane to stick with that if there’s any alternative (like a shot of morphine, or better living conditions). And it’s even worse, it’s not only insane but positively evil, to impose it gratuitously and needlessly on someone else. I would happily (and gratuitously) send Bojaxhiu to a place worse than Hell for that.


  14. Douglas Thompson
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Better Speelling this time. Was agitated with the IRRATIONAL REVERENCE New Atheists have for the war monger Hitchens. Hitchens argued vehemently and aggressively and skillfully for the United States military invasion of Iraq (New Atheist Media Darling). He was more than comfortable coddling up to the crazed Evangelical Bush and the despotic Cheney. The body count is well over a million people – largely civilians, a large perecentage children. New Atheists should take the plank out of their own eye and thoroughly renounce Hitchens hatefull war mongering then perhaps resume criticism of Mother Thersesa (some – maybe most – but not all justified).

    • Posted July 20, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Not that much “better speeling”! But seriously–this is one of the worst cases of Whataboutery I’ve seen. Not all New Atheists approved of the war (I was against it); and you’re just fulminating about Hitchens here. This has NOTHING to do with Mother Teresa and everything with your attempt to troll atheists. Plus you’re telling me what I need to pay attention to?

      I suggest you go post your splenetic comments on a religious site.

    • BJ
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      What a lovely post. A man supports one thing you didn’t like, and you think he should be ostracized for it. You know who else engages in such activity? The religious and regressives.

      Get out of here with your empy arguments of whatabboutery and implications that Hitchens was somehow the catalyst of the war (or that he was buddy’s with Bush and Cheney, rather than just a supporter for a single policy they enacted).

      What an utterly dishonest and patronizing comment.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 22, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      The first acquaintance I made with Hitch (not personally! – first time I came across his words) was the Iraq War and I was totally disgusted by it.

      But then I read / watched much more of his and he was dead right about everything else.

      In the current context, his views on Iraq are irrelevant and a red herring. Everyone’s wrong about *some* thing or other. I’m not about to tear up my physics book because Newton had nutty ideas on religion.

      And even if Hitch was dead wrong about *everything* (else) it still wouldn’t make Agnes Bojaxhiu one whit less evil.


  15. James Walker
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    “Suffering is good for the soul”

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      Some suffering is good for the soul some of the time, but not all suffering is good, nor is suffering good all the time.

      • Posted July 21, 2017 at 6:18 am | Permalink

        “Suffering is good for leprechauns”. I can say this with absolute conviction because they do not exist either.

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 21, 2017 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

          “Suffering is good for my billion-dollar bank account.”

          Now I just made myself sad… 😦

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    The notion that masochism appear to be a form of charity is intriguingly explored by psychologist Ernest Becker in his book “The Denial of Death” (a book Alvy gives to Annie in “Annie Hall”), especially in Chapter 10.

    Teresa’s mentality is part and parcel of the thinking that informs Mel Gibson’s film “Passion of the Christ”. It seems to have peaked in the late Middle Ages during the era of the Black Plague, but never completely gone away.

    One of the folks who exposed MT was a nun who worked alongside her, Mary Johnson. One of my favorite skeptic/humanist/atheist authors, Valerie Tarico, interviews Mary Johnson here.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    So I read an opinion piece today on the appointment of first Swedish catholic cardinal, who is relatively “progressive” –
    but against abortion.

    Catholicism is cruel.

    Thank you Jerry for giving me zero hours warning about writing a post.

    Oh, the joy of suffering.

  18. BJ
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Anyone who hasn’t should watch Hitches’ documentary on Mother Teresa called “Hell’s Angel.” It’s a remarkable accounting of her unconscionable treatment of those for whom she “cared” and how she somehow became celebrated as the ultimate symbol of compassionate. It delves into many of her hospitals and treatment centers as well, from their abhorrent conditions to the complete lack of medical care available there (including anything to alleviate the pain of the suffering). Finally, it takes a look at just how much money she and her organizations raked in, and points out that it certainly didn’t go to her “good works.”

  19. Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    My theory, which is mine, is that the fetishization of suffering is one of many “over-compensations”. It is an attempt to find a silver lining. It is an attempt to make a virtue of necessity. But it goes too far, just as anti-abortion nuts go too far in their protection of new and fragile life, or naturopaths go too far in their rejection of poisons, or etc.

  20. Tom
    Posted July 21, 2017 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    If suffering is good for the soul, people who have died from torture must have been very good…at the end.
    Many of the religious (especially men)play act suffering pain just as they play act charity etc. Surely god must be watching!
    I would suggest they grow up.
    Whatever is going on in their tiny minds it is an abuse of the body and no better than a disease which if they really knew their “theology” they would know is the work of evil spirits…or something.

  21. kieran
    Posted July 21, 2017 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Friend of mine volunteered with the sisters in India, very quickly came to agree with Hitchens views.
    Trained doctors volunteering just sent to re wash sheets that local women had already washed because there was no washing machines.

    Since this is an open thread, any advice on a small compact camera with optical zoom. Don’t want to break the bank. Needs to be tough as I’ll probably bring it up mountains and even down rivers but does not need to be a rugged type

    • marvol19
      Posted July 21, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      I find that for not too much money, one of the Canon PowerShot series will serve you perfectly.

      Find one that is in your budget, and of the right size. They are generally sturdy, versatile and will give you good quality of pictures.

      • JoanL
        Posted July 21, 2017 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. I’ve owned both Canon and Kodak and like the Canon better. Wish the Kodak had image stabilization as its images are blurry more frequently.

  22. Posted July 21, 2017 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    It’s only when you’re in pain that you really know you’re alive!

    • rickflick
      Posted July 21, 2017 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      …or while motorboating. 😉

  23. Posted July 21, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    It is inevitable that we will suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally during our lifetimes. There is only ONE positive thing to come from suffering–and that is in the experience of suffering, we are able to understand and empathize with those who suffer.

  24. Hoyt
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    Self-hatred and self-abuse are sick. They are pathological.

    This religious concept also makes its way into both Left and Right wing ideologies. For example, public masochism over “White guilt” or the sins of Western Civilization, look a lot like an old monk whipping himself.

  25. Posted July 23, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Harvey Fergusson was an American novelist/philosopher who is now forgotten, but is well worth reading if you can still find his books (“Capitol Hill,” “Women and Wives,” “Wolf Song,” etc.) His first novel, “Blood of the Conquerors,” published in 1921, has some very interesting stuff about the social role of the “penitentes,” a sect of flagellants who would nail themselves to crosses, etc., in old New Mexico. They were a mainly Hispanic ingroup, and, as described by Fergusson, membership was a path to economic and social power as well as “salvation.”

    Fergusson’s non-fiction “Modern Man,” (1936) has some amazing insights into the issues of free will, consciousness, and the role of groups in human behavior.

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