Susan’s Christmas post on this blog was an honest cry from a brave and faithful woman who was suffering. I know that she’s had many difficult days since that post. How do we come to grips with suffering, our own and others’?
Like Susan and Becky and many of you, I am blessed to have been raised by parents of a courageous faith. Amazing friends who bear witness to their trust in God surround me. I have been with many in their suffering—family, friends and precious patients in my hospice career. Faith and suffering are hardly strangers to each other.
I have just come from my regular visit with my great friend (since we were 18) Mac. Godfather to my son, Mac was a healthy, vigorous pillar of his church when for reasons we will never know, he suffered a massive stroke three years ago. Today, as other days, I wiped food from his face, rearranged his paralyzed limbs and combed his hair. We talk about old times, but he is easily tearful and confused. He is in pain. He will never be able to leave a nursing facility.
I went from the nursing home to meet up with his wife, my college roommate and still my best friend, Jane, in the home where she and Mac raised my godchild; Jane usually takes a break from the visit schedule that is her life when she knows I am at the facility. While she got ready for us to go out and grab a bite, I pondered a photograph on her wall that I took during one of our many combined family vacations. We were on the North Carolina Outer Banks, and the picture shows an outdoor shower stall at our rented house near the beach. You can see two sets of feet that face each other, just visible at the bottom of the stall. Mac and Jane. The caption I had inscribed on that framed picture was “Whither thou goest, I will go.” It was funny at the time. Now, during our dinner, I listened to Jane’s struggles as I do most every day -- how those words from the Book of Ruth are now lived out in her life.
I have no answer for why people suffer. I cared for my parents through excruciating suffering. (I remember wanting to bite the head off a chaplain intern who preached in the hospital chapel, where my dad was dying of brain cancer, that “if you aren’t getting better, your faith is lacking.”) I saw two of my children through mental illness—one of them suicidal and hospitalized off and on for years—as a result of childhood sex abuse. I have held, and listened to, the prayers of my brothers and sisters in faith as part of my church’s prayer ministry. I am about to check in on another great friend who last week heard the diagnosis of malignant melanoma. It’s a mystery, all this pain. But here’s what I believe.
Suffering is part of our human condition, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. I don’t know why some get more or less, better or worse. But I know that God does not will it, and I believe God cries for us. Sometimes, in prayer, I think I can almost hear God crying.
Many people share their “wisdom” on suffering: I read that “suffering is God’s megaphone to a deaf world.” What an awful thing to say. A god who slams us, his children, with pain and suffering to get our attention is not the God of love I know and worship. We are not guaranteed earthly safety, clarity, or no pain. We are promised, with a love that outlasts everything, that we are never alone. (You and I are part of that promise when we choose to be present for others.)
I believe in an incarnate, fully human Jesus that was far more than a lovely painting. He was oppressed and afflicted, “a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.” Like you and Susan and Mac and me. There is no difficult place we can be where Jesus has not been.
I do believe in miracles and have seen them. I don’t know why some people get them and some people don’t. If I really understood, then they wouldn’t be miracles. But I know that miracles come in all sizes and shapes, and sometimes we don’t recognize them.
We do not suffer to learn a lesson, but we can sometimes learn something new because of it. Viktor Frankl was a concentration camp survivor who struggled to make sense of what happened to his family, became a noted psychologist and author. “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning,” observed Frankl. And that meaning is not why it happened, it is what we might do with it. My daughter found meaning from her years of profound illness by becoming an amazing ICU nurse-specialist, intimately present for the most frightened and most ill. I found meaning in my losses by dedicating my work to improving care of the very sick. Susan has found meaning in continuing her counseling to ease the pain of others, even as she experiences her own pain. And she endures to be a Mom.
It’s all a mystery that I hold up to God every day. And even though I can’t be clear on the answer, I know I am heard, and I know the answer is there but out of my sight. I choose to take comfort in the belief that all will be well through God’s love.
I claim that all will be well with Susan.