Rather than just reflecting on the theological and philosophical discourses that carefully dance around suffering, Wendy Farley has been of great assistance in helping me to think about suffering as it is—as part of the human experience. Farley draws upon the language of traditional folk songs to exemplify ways of simply “being in the suffering” that have become somewhat less common and unfamiliar in Western societies. In such songs, there’s little attempt to explain one’s suffering, ask why, try to rationalize or resolve it—just pure honesty about the pain. That is rare.
We have a two-year old daughter and it has been a process of learning how to console her in her frustration or injury—yet give her space to feel and express herself. Early on, if she hurt herself, we were tempted to rush in telling her “It’s okay!” or try to distract her with something else. Overtime we’ve learned to allow her to feel what she is feeling while at the same time consoling her and loving her through it. If she is angry or sad about something, we get down on her level where we can look into her eyes and say something like, “I know you feel frustrated and this is hard.” We try to remain patient, attentive, and compassionate while she works through her emotions. We try to be with her and help her understand that it is okay to “feel.” Our early parental instincts seemed to be saying, “No! Don’t feel this emotion! Don’t feel sad! Don’t cry! Solve this problem immediately!” Why do we have such a tendency to try and distract ourselves and one another from feeling how we really feel?
In her book The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth, Farley writes, “Folk traditions come out of communities where the rawness of suffering and oppression is immediate and unconcealed. Crying and dying can’t be easily postponed or disguised.”1 Today, it is quite easy to disguise and postpone our suffering. This is partly due to the way we are inundated with distractions but also because we don’t really have any external structures to allow us to “dwell in the suffering.”
My wife and I lived in Vietnam for two years and witnessed many traditional wakes following a person’s death. A tent would be set up in front of the family’s house, friends and family would gather, the event would often take over half of the street, music would be played, meals ate together, and the wake would last for days. Many traditional cultures have similar practices of mourning the deceased that often last days, weeks, and even months. Our culture in the U.S. doesn’t provide that sort of room for prolonged mourning. In fact, it seems that our culture it is rather uncomfortable with dwelling in that suffering for any longer than we have to.
I had a baby sister who passed away when she was just 10-months old. She was born with a congenital, cellular muscle condition which rendered her body unable to build muscle tissue. As her body grew, it was less and less able to support itself. The evening that she passed is sort of a blur to me, but there are two things that stand out. One, our family doctor, a kind Christian man, came over to our house and just sat with our family without speaking for upwards of an hour. He didn’t try to console us or try to “fix” anything, he was just there. His simple presence transcended anything that words could have accomplished. Two, later that night, I remember nearly all of my aunts and uncles were at our house. My memory is of them just being present with us. They didn’t have to come over, but it was a sort of innate familial impulse to “be in the suffering” that brought everyone together.
It’s not just folk songs that can teach us and enable us to get in touch with this raw form of suffering. Art and poetry can provide us with their own unique form of solidarity and compassion toward our suffering. I heard Marie Howe say in an interview, “Art helps us let our heart break open rather than close.”2 It seems that nearly everything around us encourages us to close our hearts—often disguising this closing as “being strong” or “doing okay.” But what if the “being in the suffering” and the “breaking open of our hearts” is precisely what heals and cultivates strength, courage, authenticity, wisdom, and compassion?
Farley writes, “The courage to acknowledge the ferocity of suffering and to bring this knowledge directly into Christian life is a great gift to our understanding of Christianity’s capacity to speak to the disorder of life.”3 While the crux of Christianity can provide a context for compassion, mercy, understanding, and healing in the face of suffering and disorder; Christianity, unfortunately, has also been responsible for perpetuating such suffering—even worsening it at times. Farley explains, “Classical theology and reform liturgy justifies rather than encounters suffering. Before suffering can speak or cry out, it has been steamrolled by an aggressive theology of sin and guilt. By contrast, folk songs, both secular and religious, testify to suffering as a fundamental condition of human life. In this they are more ruthlessly honest than classical theology.”4
There are so many painful accounts of religious leaders and laypersons telling people that God took their mother or their child—that it was somehow part of His plan. The pain of such loss is so raw and fragile as it is, that to pin the responsibility of such pain on a loving, benevolent, compassionate God is soul-crushing and often permanently damaging. To try and provide some sort of explanation for another’s suffering while that person is in such a fragile state can be unraveling. What the sufferer needs is someone to “be with them” in a safe place—someone to be vulnerable enough to allow the other’s pain to become theirs too. I love what Brené Brown says in the video below, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”5
Theology is important; but to try to impose theology (especially bad theology) into the midst of someone’s suffering is to smother their humanity and and disregard the lived experience of their pain. What we need, and what others need, is human connection. This is a two-way street, however. The sufferer must be willing to let other’s in, and we must be willing to enter into that suffering with them.
Suffering is part of the human condition. We don’t want to wallow in suffering or be unconcerned with moving past it; but acknowledging suffering for what it is and providing space for ourselves and others to experience suffering is how we find healing. Avoiding suffering in sufferable moments is a form of denial and/or inauthenticity.
I’ll close by encouraging you to watch this wonderfully animated video narrated by Brené Brown. It deals more specifically with empathy, but I think it speaks to the topic of suffering as well.
Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Guatemala City, Guatemala
1Farley, Wendy. The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005. 8. Print.
2Interview with Krista Tippett: http://www.onbeing.org/program/the-poetry-of-ordinary-time-with-marie-howe/5301
5Brené Brown on Empathy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw