A Word about Suffering

Ok, fine– many words about suffering…

A quick search on the topic of suffering brings out the heavy hitters–

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
Helen Keller

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.
Khalil Gibran

And that’s not even tapping into our massive supply of Orthodox sources, of which I’m glad to post a taste–

Let all involuntary suffering teach you to remember God, and you will not lack occasion for repentance.
+ St. Mark the Ascetic, “On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts” No. 57, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

The sensible man, taking into account the remedial effect of the divine prescriptions, gladly bears the sufferings which they bring upon him, since he is aware that they have no cause other than his own sin. But when the fool, ignorant of the supreme wisdom of God’s providence, sins and is corrected, he regards either God or men as responsible for the hardships he suffers.
+St. Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love 2.46, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 2)

So, yeah. The collective “we” thinks and talks a great deal about suffering. We’re suffering for freedoms, for justice, for art. We can witness suffering in starving children in third world countries, in bombed out places we cannot pronounce, inner city shootings,  terrorist attacks, laid off workers in coal country. We see it on the news, listen to the stories on the radio, click through from posts on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr.

What strikes me today, though, is how often words like “victory” and “triumph” figure into the historical accounts of suffering we read in the quotes above. The trials of the day are documented, the injustices cataloged, the stories fleshed out and breathing. We have to move toward redemption. Trials must be acquitted, injustices must be corrected, stories that live and breathe and walk among us must be told.

We want it all to have meant something in the end, and this is important. Without meaning, without redemption and reconciliation to higher ideals, better circumstances and stronger moral fiber, it’s likely we will fall into despair. What’s the point of it all if we’re not “getting better?”

And what does it mean to “get better” anyway? Clean drinking water, well-educated citizens, healthy communities, yes, but for those of us who profess to follow Christ, all of these things are fueled by a commitment to seek Him out and find Him in the suffering and more particularly, in the stories of those who suffer. I’m not going to pretend that this is easy for me, or perhaps, for any of us. I like to be comfortable. Suffering is no fun.

Here’s the thing– to be willing to see Christ in these moments means I give something up. I can put my fingers right on it, too.  When I am faced with suffering– my own or that of another person– I am faced with putting down some burden to make room for compassion, forgiveness, mercy, hope. And this is the crazy part, I’m faced with putting down this weighty thing whether it’s pride or despair or judgment, to trade it for something redemptive, but I don’t really want to put it down.

I get used to carrying this stuff around. I buy bigger emotional duffle bags just to be sure I’m never without it. I’ll give you an example because it’s something I noticed yesterday while I listened to the news on the radio in my car. I never used to listen to the news in the car. Music from my playlist, sometimes maybe, an audiobook, or silence were my go-to choices. I don’t have to tell you, though, that there’s a whole lotta “news” happening these days.

Lots of news! All the news! Breaking news!

I have heard the term “breaking news” so much in the last year that it’s ceased to mean anything at all. I hear news anchors say it and I think, “Yeah, but, really? Is it??” I’m becoming desensitized to the news– real, fake, breaking or otherwise. I’m no longer a witness to suffering, I’m just consuming this news like candy that tastes like cough syrup. I’m losing something in the process.

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.
Nelson Mandela

How can I move to compassion from a place of dulled senses, angry rhetoric, burdensome judgment? Because in my view, which I hope is well informed from the wise folks I’ve quoted above, compassion is our route to seeing the redemption, victory and triumph the comes of suffering. Compassion, meaning, “to suffer with” is what brings us, ultimately, to humility.

We have to want that. When we stop wanting to reach for humility and choose instead carrying our duffel bags of judgment, condemnation or Lord-knows-what, we’re not likely to find the higher purpose of this suffering.

“Until you have suffered much in your heart, you cannot learn humility.”
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

This is what’s on my mind today as I drive around the city on a hot (nearly) summer day. I think I’ll turn off the news for a little while and listen to birds singing, trains rumbling, cars honking, not to drown out the sufferings of the world, but to remember my humanity and the collective “we.”

 

One comment:

  1. At St. John’s we have been doing a book study on “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.” Elder Thaddeus really gets to the heart of what is the most important way to view our lives.

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