thoughts personal, public and everything in between

Saturday, June 23, 2007

con patienti

Without mud you cannot have lotus flowers. Without suffering, you have no way to learn how to be understanding and compassionate.
--Thich Nhat Hanh

Bear one another's burden's, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ.
--Galatians 6:2

The English word compassion comes from a Latin phrase which translates literally into "suffering together." It has less to do with virtuous condescension from one's place of comfort to show kindness to someone less fortunate than with profound and existential solidarity with suffering humanity. To show compassion requires a personal, nonresistant encounter with pain.

This, of course, calls immediately for a number of clarifications. The first is that there can be no general principle explaining the meaning of suffering or prescribing how one should respond to it. All pain is not the same. More often than we know, one person's misery is the result of another person's injustice--physical and mental abuse, imbalances of social and economic power, negligence on the part of wealthier nations toward the poverty and violence that their habits of consumptions create in other parts of the world. This kind of suffering must never be glossed over with platitudes about God's mysterious ways or the power of individuals to create their own realities. It must always be exposed for the evil that it is, fought against and vehemently protested.

On the same note, I do not believe that suffering comes from God or stems directly from some divine purpose. Pain is not good, even though it is redeemed. It is an aberration, one that, like sin itself, finally bends to the liberating work of Christ in the world, but an aberration all the same.

For this reason, I am all for using of whatever truthful means are available to alleviate it. There is, of course, no wisdom in pursuing or holding onto pain for its own sake. When my body suffers, you'd better believe I intend to do something about it.

Fourth, I do not mean to suggest that those who have suffered serious personal injury, illness, loss or hardship thereby possess some special virtue that others do not. These experiences can harden us as easily as they can soften us. Besides, those who are not hit with their own individuals tragedies can and often do step willingly into the experiences of others and bear their burdens alongside them, almost as if they were their own.

Having said this, I can't escape the fact that I and virtually everyone I know live in such privilege and comfort that the ease of our existence no longer strikes us as exceptional. Such lives are breeding grounds for self-absorption. Keeping one's own good fortune undisturbed tends to become too high a priority, and this, frankly, makes us bad citizens of the world. The distance between shutting out awful experiences and shutting out the people and realities that make us vulnerable to such experiences is short.

In this morning's sermon, George mentioned that when Michelangelo produced his David, he is reported to have seen the sculpting already in a raw slab of marble, and then chiseled away whatever wasn't David. I have no idea whether there is any basis for the story, but it applies well to the question of suffering. Sometimes affliction chips away at complacency so that one's truest self can come to the surface.

I keep hitting up against this paradox, that joy and sorrow exist inside each other. They are not parallel to each other; at least according to the Christian faith we are moving toward a day when the one will finally swallow up the other. But for now, truthful engagement with the world produces both. The Man of Sorrows and the Prince of Peace--the Crucified and the Risen One--are one and the same. I know a number of people who understand this, and it is a source immeasurable comfort to be able to talk openly with them--sometimes with overwhelming fear, and sometimes with no fear at all--about the awful reality that confronts us.

No, there is no value in obsessing over the pain in the world or in one's own life, but sometimes you can't ignore it without deceiving yourself. When that's the case, the best thing may simply be to lean into it.


Blogger G2 said...


I feel like you just wrote the most beautiful explanation of suffering, redemption, and the reality of living in both that I have ever read. I went to grad school and read existential philosophy because I couldn't wrap my mind around suffering. Your blog just did more for my understanding than all of Nietchze.

I hate that you have cancer. I hate the weeks that are miserable for you, and I hate that someday I am going to lose you. I hate that you have experienced so many hard things in your life, and that there doesn't seem to be a quota (where God is like "whoa, sorry, you can't have cancer, you have reached your suffering limit). But I love what you have done in it. I love that you think about things, and produce such thoughtful writing. I love talking to you, and how your life experiences have given you a wisdom and tenderness that makes me just want to be able to run through the telephone lines and hug you.

Thanks for being you.


25/6/07 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


These two sentences struck me in particular.

"Having said this, I can't escape the fact that I and virtually everyone I know live in such privilege and comfort that the ease of our existence no longer strikes us as exceptional. Such lives are breeding grounds for self-absorption."

You and I once had a conversation where I admitted to feeling guilty about how easily I have had it in life. In my early twenties I caught a glimpse of real human suffering in Somalia and was denied a chance to relieve much worse suffering in Rwanda on the same trip. The lives lived by the majority of the world are totally unrecognizable to most of us in the western world (and seeing images on the TV doesn't really bring it into focus, I'm afraid).

Even still, most of the time I catch myself worrying about the insignificant problems of my mundane day-to-day life more than anything else. Breeding grounds for self-absorption indeed.

Thanks for the reminder.


25/6/07 4:37 PM  
Blogger serendipity & happenstance said...

After discovering your blog, I was so moved by one post, on a very dark day I went back and read it from the beginning. I have never had cancer and have never suffered heart problems, so I am certainly unable to relate with how you are suffering, from the prognosis through the effects of your illness and treatments, and how they in turn affect your efforts to reach your goals.

However, in your writing, I immediately related to the questioning, to your sense of a “God revealed in Jesus Christ … a God who suffers, who willingly and patiently endures the chaos of a not yet fully redeemed creation.”

After a series of family crises in short succession (that still never seem to end), I stopped participating regularly in church services and activities, finding I had become utterly incapable of small talk in any “Christian” setting. If someone I meet through work asks me if I’m “fine,” I don’t have any problem sparing them the painful details while uttering other social inanities. However, I no longer seem to have the ability around a church setting. Also, hearing hymns and worship songs became such deep emotional triggers, I had to escape the sanctuary during any music, or else sit sobbing to such a degree that people around me grew visibly uncomfortable.

At another low point in my life, I I realized I had been bargaining with God for years without being consciously aware of it, my own sort of quid pro quo. As long as I managed to outwardly do all the things I really had no problem doing anyway - "going to" church 3x a week, volunteering for the nursery, children's church and the benevolence committee, singing in the choir, etc., then surely God would "honor" my supposed obedience with blessing and spare me at least some of the pain the world had to offer.

Inevitably, of course, the whole thing collapsed, as it should have. But I found myself still trying to have a say in how much was too much or when I thought something was far beyond what I thought I should ever have to cope with. Somehow, I forgot all about "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

What it came down to is, I had in my mind what I thought I could deal with, and expected God to spare me from the rest. Needless to say, at some point, the items on my list of "Anything but that, God" started to happen, and life took on a whole new dimension.

Your writing challenges my rusty intellect and the well-worn ruts left by so many years of undisciplined reading and half-remembered sermons. It also challenges me to look beyond my own self-absorption with family illness, upheavals and crises.

“Sometimes affliction chips away at complacency so that one's truest self can come to the surface.” The compacency is gone; on the rest I will have to wait, because so far all I have to show for it is the realization of how much further I have to go.

You and Karla remain in my prayers.

25/6/07 11:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Scott.

Just writing to say that I think God probably IS behind suffering, even though it doesn't seem to make sense... (Isaiah says God creates peace AND... evil). I'm hopeful, though, that, some day, we will have an answer for our cancers, burning accidents, senility, genetic disorders, you name it (one little cippled black boy I took care of who looked like he took place in a chocolate pudding ball fight and... lost badly) etc., etc., well, I'm hoping we'll have answers for them ALL, and understand why God allowed, or, possibly, created the situation. I admit it looks awfully bleak now for so many of those you wouldn't want to see suffering (not just people, thanks to Chinese cuisine), but, IF we ever DO see the big picture, maybe we'll all feel good and actually praise God? One can only hope.
Still, Scott, I'm with you. IF one can take balm for the pain, I say, take BALM for the pain. And, I hope and pray that those who weren't able to GET the balm, in this life, will be rewarded for their suffering in the here-after, atleast. Because, if they're not...oh man. Well, what was the story of Job all about IF one isn't rewarded for their suffering? And Job was a good and righteous man.

your "rooting for
you friend",
Bruce Ramsey

26/6/07 10:32 PM  
Blogger Geoff said...

Well said, Scott... I'm taking Stiver's Philosophical Theology class at Fuller NW right now, and we are reading Davis' collection of essays on the problem of evil. Your post mirrors some of my own thoughts, namely, that any theodicy which attempts to reduce the horror of evil, or offer a description of an inherent purpose within evil, is an exercise in futility. Struggling to embrace the possibility of redemption found within the midst of suffering is a profound mystery which should not be minimized or rationalized, but rather entered into with sorrow and hope.

7/7/07 6:10 PM  

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