reflections on suffering, 3 of 5

A flip side of the notion that suffering unmasks our human impotence, thus pointing to divine omnipotence is to look away from God and toward ourselves. To put this another way, whenever we look to God, gazing upon the divine majesty, we, in our reverence, are also humbled in immediate recognition (or, rather, recollection) of our humanness. In this sobering reminder, we, whene’er in the midst of suffering, are to embrace and enter fully that experience, which is an inescapable aspect of our lives, in the hope of discovering transformative possibilities.

As this, in some sense, was the counsel of my therapist: “Your experience is your experience…explore it more deeply. Therein you may find healing” (see: reflection on suffering, 1 of 5, November 3, 2015), I’d like to think there is merit in this perspective. I also do not doubt the integrity and dare not deny the sincerity of those who, looking back on their times of suffering, speak of valuable lessons learned. Chief among them, being grateful for life and health and taking neither for granted, being present in each moment with others and with one’s self and not spending too much time dwelling on the past or anticipating (worrying about) the future, being joyful in the daily gifts of sunrises and sunsets, seasonal changes of spring flowers and autumnal colors, summer’s warmth and winter’s cold, the smile and laughter of children and the patience and wisdom of the aged, verily, being and no longer doing as the primary mode of existence.[1]

Still, as learning is inherently a reflective task, it’s not the sort of thing that one (at least, for me) “gets” in the midst of the moment of suffering, which (at least, for me) produces far more weeping and cursing than insight.

Nevertheless, in contemplating suffering and potential outcomes, I do believe that our travails can sharpen our sensitivity to another’s pain. Yes, suffering can make us bitter and callous, particularly, I think, when our hardships, unsought and unwanted, are no fault of our own, but rather are the rotten fruit of unseen fates or the results of the work of other unwitting or less than kindly hands. Yet it is our human capacity to remember and to reflect so not to forget our trials that can deepen our compassion, leading us to do more than weep and curse, but also, like the Good Samaritan, to stand and serve with others in their tribulations.

The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), Vincent van Gogh, 1890

In this regard, I look afresh at a familiar biblical text: Hebrews 10.30-39. The writer offers a less than comforting message of a living, not dead God, hence the One into whose hands all must fall, who condemns those who forsake their faith. The writer, far more hopeful, also recalls a time when the people by faith, in faith, with faith stood in solidarity with the suffering.

I wonder, however, turning away from us and gazing again at God: If God could be expected to exact vengeance on those who strayed, why then could not God have been counted on to spare those who, holding fast to their faith, remained steadfast under fire?

Illustration: The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), Vincent van Gogh, 1890


[1]On this last point, I think of the words of self-development guru, Wayne Dyer: “I am a human being, not a human doing. Don’t equate your self-worth with how well you do things in life. You aren’t what you do. If you are what you do, then when you don’t…you aren’t.” Dyer prescribes that we, in the act, the art of becoming ourselves, embrace all of our experience, both joyous and sorrowful. And given my observations of my life and the lives of others, it does seem to me that our suffering oft can be the catalyst for our revising our view of life as less about attainment and achievement and more about being freely, fully, faithfully human, however defined.

2 thoughts on “reflections on suffering, 3 of 5

  1. Paul,

    This blog post put a smile on my face, because though it’s still about suffering, it’s also about helping others. We don’t often connect how our past suffering can actually be beneficial for others. One week ago when I was in the ER room with Tim, a crowd of relatives in the next room were grieving for their loved one who had passed away. They were all going behind the curtain to say goodbye to the deceased person. Seeing that instantly reminded me of being present when my sister died. As I came out of Tim’s room to make a call, one of the distraught relatives made eye contact with me. For some reason I reached out to her and we hugged. Then we let go and went our separate ways without saying a word. About an hour later as the body was taken to the morgue and the relatives started to leave the emergency room bay they were in, the woman looked in Tim’s room, and smiled and nodded to me as if thanking me for the hug, and wishing Tim a good recovery. Amazing the feeling and understanding that was exchanged between the two of us without a word. For me, it was all about recognizing their suffering and letting them know they weren’t alone. With Tim laying on the ER bed, I also knew their grief could just as easily have been mine.

    Thanks again for this series!!

    Liked by 1 person

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