SufferingMarch 17, 2015
I was reading a piece the other day about Kayla Mueller, the 26 year old human rights activist and humanitarian worker who was kidnapped in Syria and subsequently killed. Her family released these words she wrote to her father on his birthday in 2011:I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.
Our natural inclination is to attempt to avoid suffering at all costs. We creatively distance ourselves from places, circumstances and people that have the potential to cause us trouble or pain. We anesthetize ourselves from personal suffering by grand schemes of denial and distraction. But despite our best efforts, it is impossible to avoid or remove the reality of suffering from our lives or the lives of others. The only legitimate stance in the face of suffering is to accept it and enter into it.
Sometimes we experience material suffering – deprivation of some physical need – hunger, displacement, financial instability, unemployment, immobility, sickness, violence. At other times our suffering is relational – rejection, estrangement, misunderstanding, deceit, emotional abuse, isolation, fear, paranoia. And suffering is also vividly experienced on a spiritual level – guilt, regret, hatred, greed, cowardice, self-doubt, alienation, purposelessness. All of these forms of suffering are cruel and harsh and frequently experienced as massively overwhelming and oppressive.
It is far more than enough to have to bear our own sufferings, but our faith traditions call upon us to enter into the sufferings of others and help bear those burdens as well. How can all this be possible?
It is only possible to the extent that we give up the oh-so-very tight control that we try to impose upon our lives and those of others, accept the reality of our vulnerabilities, and experience the ironic and unexpected richness and strength that come when we realize our intimate solidarity with all of our other suffering sisters and brothers. This is not a case of finding company in misery, but of finding that ultimate meaning emerges only as we open ourselves without mask or pretense to the reality of the other and come to understand ourselves as integral parts of the much greater reality of the unfolding of creation.
I am reminded of the post-resurrection story where the evangelist recounts Thomas the doubter’s encounter with the risen Lord wherein Thomas is invited to put his hands right into the very raw wounds of Jesus. One of the great privileges we healthcare workers have is the invitation extended to us by our patients and their families to enter, if even for a very short period of time, into the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of their sufferings.
Young Kayla had it right. We come to understand and encounter the incredible, completely unmerited, tender embrace and absolute acceptance of a loving God in the very center of our sufferings.
Jerry Kearney, D.Min.
Vice President, Mission Integration
Saint Thomas Health