Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.
Why do I always seem to forget on the first day of Lent that I write a Lenten blog? I am in my jammies violating one of the cardinal rules of sleep hygiene: I am writing this sitting in my bed, laptop literally on my lap. It was already past my bedtime when I realized I had forgotten to write a blog post. So here we go. This year, rather than stress each day to come up with a brand new post, I will be reprising posts from previous Forty Days blogs from the past five years.
So I will begin this years blog, “Forty Days Returning” with a post from 2016. I do want to say, before I launch into this post that I have a lot on my mind and heart these days. Some of this you will read both in original, first time posts, or selected previous years’ posts. This day’s post is about suffering, which is a theme I will return to often over the next forty-plus days. Thank you, as always, for journeying with me. And now, welcome to Forty Days Returning,
Suffering and Silence, from “The Next Forty Days,” Day 14
During these 40 days, folks who observe the season of Lent spend a lot of time thinking about suffering. The closer we get to the end of these days, the intensity of focus concentrates on Jesus’s suffering as he is beaten, tortured, and crucified. It is easy to look around at the state of things in our world, our countries, our local communities, our homes, and see people suffering all around us. I suppose that for some people it might be easy to miss it, or rather to ignore it, but I think most of us are aware of suffering.
Sometimes when people think about suffering they often view it on a massive, global scale–people living in cities and countries ravaged by war, places where disease, hunger, and poverty are rampant, communities that have been devastated by some form of natural disaster. Pain, grief, and suffering are etched in deep furrows on the faces of people struggling with these challenges. We see them, mostly on television or on the internet or someplace that disconnects them from us. They look out at us from the screen or page with sorrowful or hollow or tear-filled eyes, the very face and embodiment of suffering. But suffering doesn’t only happen on global or massive scales. What if we took a look at suffering from a less global, less distant perspective, something a little closer to home. We’d realize we really don’t have to look very far. Suffering could be as close to us as the person next door, or closer still, the person we live with, or still closer, the one who lives inside our skin.
The other day I had to give a presentation to a group of people, some of whom I knew were suffering. The previous day they had lost a dear friend and colleague to a brief but devastating bout with cancer. I learned about his death the morning of the presentation and wondered if the meeting would go on. As often happens in our somewhat stoic, “the-show-must-go-on” culture, there was no sign that the meeting would be canceled and in fact went ahead as scheduled. (Some time I’ll write a post about the proper place for grief in our world, but that is not for today.) None of the people in that room appeared on the outside to be suffering–they participated, asked questions during my presentation, and it was business as usual. And yet, they were suffering.
Not too long ago I was speaking with a friend who just didn’t sound right. There was something in his voice that was just a little off. Under normal circumstances I might not have said anything, but just sort of let it go. But something made me press him a little and ask if everything was alright. “I’m okay,” he brushed it off, but that didn’t sound right either. So, I gently pushed a little more. “Why don’t we go for a walk and we can talk a little bit, or I can just listen, or we can just walk.” I didn’t like his plan of going home and mulling it over in silence. In my own life, whenever I was feeling hurt or lost or depressed or sad, I knew that to withdraw into “my cave” was the last thing I needed to do. I know enough about myself to know that sitting in the silence with my own confused thoughts, suffering, and not knowing what to do to help myself feel better is not useful. And so I held out a virtual hand to him and he accepted.
When I saw his face, his distress, the deep pain he was in was clear. The spark that is often in his eyes was obscured by a fog of suffering. Rather than rush in and try to fix anything, I simply held the space for him to be. I didn’t press him to talk, asked very few questions, and let him guide the conversation. At the end of it, I believe that he got to a better place and actually found his own wisdom within himself. I didn’t need to lead him to it, I simply held his hand while the fog cleared and let it emerge.
We have all suffered in one way or another. I believe it’s true of even the wealthiest, famous, have-it-all people on the planet. So many of us know what it’s like to hold our head in our hands and rock, nearly buried under the weight of depression, that awful feeling that you’ll never feel good again, much less aspire to being happy. Overwhelmed with grief at the loss of a loved one, feeling like the whole world has changed…that too is suffering. People who live with chronic pain, where even breathing can be painful or debilitating exhaustion is suffering. On the outside they–we–might look perfectly fine but on the inside we are suffering.
These 40 days are an exploration of sacrifice and suffering. It is a time of looking both inward and outward to heal, extend compassion and love, and offer a listening ear, a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on. Sometime it’s as simple as inviting people out of the silence and isolation of their caves and sitting with them. Jesus looked out at the suffering of the masses and he wept, and then he reached out and touched people, offering first love, then comfort, healing, forgiveness, whatever was called for. That’s what is called for from us. There are not many of us who can alleviate suffering on a grand scale, but we can definitely alleviate it for one person, and for that person it is enough.
And if it is you, dear reader, who is suffering, I invite you to take the courageous step of reaching out to someone and asking for support. And if you don’t know what you need, maybe they just sit with you and hold your hand. And if you don’t have someone you can reach out to, pray. I know it sounds corny or overly simplistic, but it has helped me during those times in my life when I was too depressed to reach out to anyone. I remember one time in particular sitting on my bed, head in my hands, rocking to comfort myself and praying “God, please help me.” When I headed out of my house to go to class, a perfect stranger came up to me, introduced herself and said she had seen me around the neighborhood and simply wanted to say hello. It was a small interaction, but it was what I needed in that moment, and I remember her name and face all these years later.
We have all suffered, and because of it we each have the capacity to help alleviate suffering. Indeed, we all have the opportunity and perhaps even the responsibility to address suffering where we find it. It’s another step on our journey of these 40 days and beyond.