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Seeing Our Suffering in New Light
The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” published in 2001:
Seeing Our Suffering with New Mindset (5-11)
When I came to Daybreak, the community of ministry to disable people where I have been pastor, I was experiencing a great deal of personal pain. My many years in the world of academics, my travels among the poor in Central America, and later, my speaking around the world about what I had seen, left me deflated. My schedule kept me running hard and fast. Rather than providing an escape from my own inner conflicts, my scurrying from speaking engagement to speaking engagement only intensified my inner turmoil. And because of my schedule, I could not fully face my pain. I carried on with the illusion that I was in control, that I could avoid what I did not want to face within myself and in the world around me.
But when I arrived, I witnessed the enormous suffering of the mentally and physically handicapped persons living here. I came gradually to see my painful problems in a new light. I realised they formed part of a much larger suffering. And I found through that insight new energy to live amid my own hardship and pain.
I realised that healing begins with our taking our pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes, all of creation. In so doing, we become participants in the great battle against the powers of darkness. Our little lives participate in something larger.
I also found something else here: people asking not so much “How can I get rid of my suffering?” but “How can I make it an occasion for growth and insight?” Among these people, most of whom cannot read, many of whom cannot care for themselves, among men and women rejected by a world that values only the whole and bright and healthy, I saw people learning how to make the connection between human suffering and God’s suffering. They helped me to see how the way through suffering is not to deny it, but to live fully in the midst of it. They were asking how they could turn pain from a long interruption into an opportunity.
How do we make such connection ourselves? How do we make this shift from evading our pain to asking God to redeem and make good use of it?
An early step in the dance sounds very simple, though often will not come easily: We are called to grieve our losses. It seems paradoxical, but healing and dancing begin with looking squarely at what causes us pain. We face the secret losses that have paralysed us and kept us imprisoned in denial or shame or guilt. We do not nurse the illusion that we can hopscotch our way through difficulties. For by trying to hide parts of our story from God’s eye and our own consciousness, we become judges of our own past. We limit divine mercy to our human fears. Our efforts to disconnect ourselves from our own suffering, end up disconnecting our suffering from God’s suffering for us. The way out of our loss and hurt is in and through. When Jesus said, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13), He affirmed that only those who can face their wounded condition can be available for healing and enter a new way of living.
Sometimes we need to ask ourselves just what our losses are. Doing so reminds us how real the experience of loss is. Perhaps you know what it is to have a parent die. How well I remember the grief I felt after my mother’s illness and death. We may experience the death of a child or of friends. And we lose people, sometimes just as painfully, through misunderstanding, conflict, or anger. I may expect a friend to visit, but he does not come. I speak to a group and expect a warm reception but no one really seems to respond. Someone may take from us a job, a career, a good name.
We may watch hopes flicker through growing infirmity, or dreams vanish through the betrayal of someone we trusted for a long time. A family member may walk out in anger and we wonder if we have failed. Sometimes our sense of loss feels large indeed: I read the newspaper and find things only worse than the day before. Our souls grow sad because of poverty or the destruction of so much natural beauty in our world. And we may lose meaning in our lives, not only because our hearts become tired, but also because someone ridicules long-cherished ways of thinking and praying. Our convictions suddenly seem old-fashioned, unnecessary. Even our faith seems shaky. Such are the potential disappointments of any life.
Typically we see such hardship as an obstacle to what we think we should be---healthy, good-looking, free of discomfort. We consider suffering as annoying at best, meaningless at worst. We strive to get rid of our pains in whatever way we can. A part of us prefers the illusion that our losses are not real, that they come only as temporary interruptions. We thereby expend much energy in denial. “They should not prevent us from holding on to the real thing,” we say to ourselves.
Several temptations feed this denial. Our incessant busyness, for example, becomes a way to escape what must some days be confronted. The world in which we live lies in the power of the Evil One, and the Evil One would prefer to distract us and fill every little space with things to do, people to meet, business to accomplish, products to be made. He does not allow any space for genuine grief and mourning. Our busyness becomes a curse, even while we think it provides us with relief from the pain inside. Our over packed lives serve only to keep us from facing the inevitable difficulty that we all, at some time or another, must face.
The voice of evil also tries to tempt us to put on an invincible front. Words such as vulnerability, letting go, surrendering, crying, mourning, and grief are not to be found in the devil’s dictionary. Someone once said to me, “Never show your weakness, for you will be used; never be vulnerable, for you will get hurt; never depend on others, for you will lose your freedom.” This might sound very wise, but it does not echo the voice of wisdom. It mimics a world that wants us to respect without question the social boundaries and compulsions that our society has defined for us.
Facing our losses also means avoiding a temptation to see life as an exercise in having needs met. We are needy people, of course: We want attention, affection, influence, power. And our needs seem never to be satisfied. Even altruistic actions can get tangled with these needs. Then, when people or circumstances do not fulfil all of our needs, we withdraw or lash out. We nurse our wounded spirits. And we become even needier. We crave easy assurances, ignoring anything that would suggest another way.
We also like easy victories: growth without crisis, healing without pains, the resurrection without the cross. No wonder we enjoy watching parades and shouting out to returning heroes, miracle workers, and record breakers. No wonder our communities seem organised to keep suffering at a distance: People are buried in ways that shroud death with euphemism and ornate furnishings. Institutions hide away the mentally ill and criminal offenders in a continuing denial that they belong to the human family. Even our daily customs lead us to cloak our feelings and speak politely through clenched teeth and prevent honest, healing confrontation. Friendships become superficial and temporary.
The way of Jesus looks very different. While Jesus brought great comfort and came with kind words and a healing touch, He did not come to take all our pains away. Jesus entered into Jerusalem in His last days on a donkey, like a clown at a parade. This was His way of reminding us that we fool ourselves when we insist on easy victories. When we think we can succeed in cloaking what ails us and our times in pleasantness. Much that is worthwhile comes only through confrontation.
The way from Palm Sunday to Easter is the patient way, the suffering way. Indeed, our word patience comes from the ancient root patior, “to suffer.” To learn patience is not to rebel against every hardship. For if we insist on continuing to cover our pains with easy “Hosannas,” we run the risk of losing our patience. We are likely to become bitter and cynical or violent and aggressive when the shallowness of the easy way wears through.
Instead, Christ invites us to remain in touch with the many suffering of every day and to taste the beginning of hope and new life right there, where we live amid our hurts and pains and brokenness. By observing His life, His followers discover that when all of the crowd’s “Hosannas” had fallen silent, when disciples and friends had left Him, and after Jesus cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken Me?” then it was the Son of Man rose from death. Then He broke through the chains of death and became Saviour. That is the patient way, slowly leading me from easy triumph to the hard victory.
I am less likely to deny my suffering when I learn how God uses it to mould me and draw me closer to Him. I will be less likely to see my pains as interruptions to my plans and more able to see them as the means for God to make me ready to receive Him. I let Christ live near my hurts and distractions.
I remember an old priest who one day said to me, “I have always been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted; then I realised that the interruptions were my work.” The unpleasant things, the hard moments, the unexpected setbacks carry more potential than we usually realise. For the movement from Palm Sunday to Easter takes us from the easy victory built on small dreams and illusions to the hard victory offered by God who wants to purify us by His patient, caring hand.
As I learned from my friends at Daybreak, at the center of our Christian faith we perceive a God who took on Himself the burden of the entire world. Suffering invites us to place our hurts in larger hands. In Christ we see God suffering---for us. And calling us to share in God’s suffering love for a hurting world. The small and even overpowering pains of our lives are intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Our daily sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope. Absolutely nothing in our lives lies outside the realm of God’s judgement and mercy.
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