The Human Face of Suffering

Blooms!I have come to believe that, in our lives, the small things are as important as the large ones, that the Monarch butterfly dying on the frosty late season milkweed, the heartbreak and suffering that follows the loss of relationship, and the birth of a child, when held dear, all yield meaning, creating the very fabric of our lives.

We have entered Holy Week, a time in the Christian calendar when we are reminded of the sacred nature of suffering and death, a time I find both difficult and mysterious. This week, we are reminded that suffering of all kinds is part of the human experience. Like Jesus, we must all face heartbreak, loss, betrayal, pain, hopelessness, and, ultimately, death. Do we not also seek to redeem the world through our lives, our joys and our suffering, and in so doing risk betrayal, scorn, and abandonment?

Loss has a unique capacity to grasp the heart, holding on steadfastly, sometimes defying the healing touch of time. How lasting the image of Mary standing helplessly by as her child faces unimaginable cruelty, pain, and death!

Yesterday, sitting with friends, I was reminded that the suffering of parents who lose children, whether through theft or illness, is our heritage, a momentous experience that echos through generations, shaking the very earth upon which families would stand. No wonder Mary speaks so forcefully to Indigenous communities, and to others who have faced genocide; her heartbreak is our heartbreak, before which two thousand years is but an instant.

Suffering may also bring opportunity, for when we are able to embrace our suffering, and that of our friends and loved ones, of our neighbors, and even of strangers, we may discover that our witnessing somehow redeems our lives and theirs. Yet the capacity to stand with the pain is hard won, and often, transient. Fear and revulsion in the face of illness and disability are also human experiences, physical reactions held deep in our genome, defenses against contagion that leave us vulnerable to cruelty and threaten our very humanity.

Perhaps this innate capacity to create the distant other is the source of torture, and the ancient human practice of public cruelty. I imagine seeing the victim as other gives people a momentary sense of freedom and safety, for we are, in that instant, NOT caught in the grip of terror and pain; the suffering is held firmly by the not me, by someone else.

I believe that this week, as we await Easter, and the Earth’s rebirth in spring, we are offered the opportunity to acknowledge Jesus’ humanity, to recognize his experience of suffering as both unique, and that of Everyperson, and, thus, to feel kinship with all who suffer.

9 thoughts on “The Human Face of Suffering

  1. Beautiful post, Michael. So often I have feared allowing the people who love me see my pain and suffering, but I also am drawn to those who are suffering. Thank you for reminding me that as I am aging it is very important to let others feel a kinship to my pain and suffering. As I am becoming less useful in the world of work, it is something I can give to others.
    I, too, am amazed that people can intentionally cause pain and suffering to others. There is obviously some part of the soul that is broken within these people and this scares me. I know there is a body of psychological theory as to why but at my age this brokenness tugs at my spiritual compassion more than my intellectual understanding.

    1. Pat, I spend much time in the world of trauma care, a land where it is all to easy for those who were harmed to harm others. Acts of hatred and brutality have a way of picking up momentum over time, ensnaring more and more lives as they move through generations.
      This week I ended up in the urgent care clinic ( better than the ER) for another strange Post Polio twist. That generated a conversation with my wife about finding the balance in our lives between disability and engagement, caregiving and receptivity. How to navigate this tricky terrain as we age, and as my challenged body seeks ease.

      1. I have a close friend who is transgendered (male to female except for the genital surgery) and her greatest fear is being mistreated by medical personnel. I wish you well and admire your intelligence and spirit. I am reading “Being Mortal” for the second time in an attempt to make sure I am clear about the kind of care I am willing to consent to under what conditions. I feel very sorry for those people who aren’t able to think this through with caring spouses. Easter blessings of love and forgiveness to you and your loved ones.

      2. Hi Pat, Feels are mutual. I am muddling through -especially now that mud season has arrived. Yesterday Jennie and I found ourselves once again in a conversation about the future and the need for directives. Of course, the challenge in the process is all the gray areas, which are beastily hard to plan for. Still, we do our best, eh? Coming north soon?

      3. Aging is not for the faint of heart or timid. We are going north the end of the month – and I’m getting ready. And don’t become a “stuck in the mud”.

      4. Pat, I see trans people in my life and practice, and we often speak about both the kindness and the malice of doctors and other health care providers.Here in Vermont, htese seems to be, generally, more support for trans people in the medical community. But as is invariably the way, there are pockets of refusal.

  2. I agree that suffering can be a source of opportunity. But I believe that humanity labours under a misperception that struggle is necessary for survival or for spiritual development, and so in many ways we reinforce that belief and create obstacles to freedom from suffering. Whatever challenge in shared suffering we face, I believe it should at least enevitably lead us back to the realisation of our inherently cooperative nature.

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