There’s a lot of sadness, grief, and suffering in the world right now. It has always been so, but now we’re perhaps more present to it. I wrote the following piece on suffering two years ago, when I was more removed from the level of suffering I’m seeing today. Nevertheless I am offering it this evening as we continue this journey of 40 days. May it prove useful to you on your journey.
Forty Days Revisited, Day 6–On Suffering, Part 1
One of the challenges of nightly blogging is that, usually by the time I sit down to write, I’ve worked all day and my mind is worn out. During this first week of Lent, I have been even more exhausted than usual, given the pace of my work and the hours I’ve been keeping. I’ve resorted twice already to dipping into my blog reserves to bring out a piece that I wrote two or three years ago. That is a mark–one of many I’ve experienced recently–of having pushed myself too far for too long. It also is the nature of my work right now, especially at this particular time in the country and world when things seem to be going haywire faster than our capacity to keep up with them.
And so I find myself, once again, pondering the nature of suffering so that I can write about it, while I actually am suffering. Perfect, right? Part of the observance of Lent is intentionally focusing on fasting, and penitence, and giving up sweets and beer and swearing and other things, to deny ourselves in commemoration of the fasting, suffering, and ultimately, death of Jesus. For those who observe Lent, this is a solemn time, a contemplative time. It is time when some of us think a great deal about suffering as we walk with Jesus during the last, fateful days of his short ministry.
I actually think about suffering a lot, because in so many different forms it is all around us, literally everywhere. For some people, the nature of their work puts them in constant contact with people who are suffering. People like physicians, nurses, health care providers, psychologists and social workers, aid and rescue workers, hospice providers, drug abuse counselors, homeless shelter and food pantry staff…these people see suffering up close and personal on a daily basis–their jobs, and often their callings, are to provide direct care and compassionate support for and to ease the suffering of the people around them. For some of us, the connection is less direct, but we observe the suffering nonetheless.
It’s easy for us to see a homeless person in tattered clothes, muttering to himself as he walks down a cold city street and observe that he is suffering. We watch on the TV news as a mother wails in anguish over a child who was gunned down in the street, and our heart aches at her suffering. We see makeshift memorials on the side of a highway where someone has undoubtedly been killed in an accident. We might not even know what the circumstances were or who died, but we are somehow touched by the pain of loss that someone must have felt when they left those flowers, that teddy bear, or cross marking the spot where their loved one died. Everywhere we turn, there is suffering.
But some suffering is not so visible or obvious. The well-dressed executive who is in deep despair that her work is not satisfying, but she feels trapped in a nightmare existence wherein she takes medication to manage her depression, anxiety, and stress so she can force herself to go to the office one more day. As unlikely as it might seem to some of us, some people who appear to “have it all,” often inhabit a space of internal turmoil or angst or loneliness or feeling like an imposter that is very nearly immobilizing. That, too, is suffering.
It is why, I like to believe, we reach out to one another in compassion. We all have suffered. All. Even those who don’t realize they’re suffering are and have in the past. Their lack of recognition of their condition does not invalidate the truth of their suffering. We can see it even if they can’t.
I can imagine that Jesus couldn’t stand to see people suffering, ill, in pain or grief, or any number of ills. By couldn’t stand, I mean that he couldn’t sit idly by and not act to relieve or alleviate that which he saw around him. He was compelled to help those who reached out to him. It’s who he was. And so it is with us. We are not all called to be direct care providers that ease the physical suffering of the body, but some of us are called to support others whose hearts or minds are suffering, who are lonely and need to know someone cares, or who are in the grip of forms of suffering they cannot name. Jesus was compelled to help, and so too, are we.
I have lately suffered from varying degrees of burnout and exhaustion. I’ve been forced to consider that I perhaps need to take a step back from the work I am doing. While my work no doubt helps and has touched a lot of people, it has taken a lot out of me. The nature of the work, as well as the mental demands sometimes leave me feeling exhausted and spent. Even Jesus got tired sometimes. Even Jesus took a rest.
Over these 40 days, I know I will spend a lot of time pondering the nature of suffering, the obvious and the not-so-obvious. Some of it I will record in this blog, if I have the energy. If I want to help heal the world, I need to ponder suffering–theirs and my own–and embrace what I see in others. This is the journey of the 40 days. This is the journey of life.
Today, may I and all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May we experience and know true happiness and peace, and taste, savor, and enjoy the fruits thereof. May it be so for us all.