What Does it Mean to Suffer with Those who Suffer? | Sojourners

What Does it Mean to Suffer with Those who Suffer?

I’ve always been terrified of pain. Not physical pain like migraines or plantar fasciitis in my heel. Those pains are frustrating, but I live with them. It’s the pain of loss that I fear, the inevitable death of someone that I love. I thought I’d curated a pretty safe life for myself: I’m not married, I don’t have children. I still have my childhood terror of losing my parents, but I’ve been working my whole life to be ready for that so it doesn’t destroy me. I’ve been trying to brace myself and let go at the same time. But loss is not a mid-term exam that we can study for — it comes whether we’ve practiced for it or not, and always seems to find us unprepared.

It’s not that I intended to stay single. For my twenties and much of my thirties, I desperately wanted a spouse and children. In my thirties, though, when I realized that the depression and migraines were going to take years’ worth of energy to cope with, and when I had not yet met fallen in love (at least mutually), I began to let go of that dream. It made it somewhat easier to realize that being single, in some ways, meant less heartache. I watched so many of my friends go through difficult divorces, or stay but struggle with miscommunication and unmet needs. As I worked to rebuild my health and my community, I began to know and love more and more people whose spouses — and, impossibly, children — died.

Death took the husband of a neighbor of mine
on a highway with a drunk at the wheel.
She told me, ‘Keep your clean hands off the laundry I left
and don’t tell me you know how I feel.

-Bob Franke, For Real

I didn’t have my own spouse or children to lose, but I felt the blows of my friends’ losses. The pain was not as acute as if it had been my own loved one, but it began to build. I was actively creating community online as well as in person, and I came to know and care for a lot of people. I grieved the death of Anna’s Jack, Kate’s Gavin, and Scarlett’s Knox. I squeezed the children I nannied when people said, “Hold your children tight,” after a tragedy, and tried to imagine but also not to imagine how much it would hurt to lose my own.

These past few months have been particularly brutal for my community of writers and people of faith. Dawn Duncan Harrell, a writer friend of mine and the wife of a former pastor at Boston’s Park Street Church, died of pancreatic cancer very shortly after being diagnosed, leaving a young daughter. Rachel Held Evan’s illness and death shook thousands, reminding us all of how integral she was in creating our community of faithful doubters. Then, a few days ago, writer and activist (and also my friend) Shannon Dingle lost her husband Lee to a sudden accident. The day before that I’d gotten the news that another dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I Corinthians 12:14-17 speaks of what it means to be the body of Christ:

For the body does not consist of one part, but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?

I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by this vision of diverse people with very different gifts and abilities coming together to make up something greater than our individual selves. I’ve struggled to apply it and see it applied in the various churches and communities I’ve been part of. Are we really honoring all people for what they truly are? Or are we trying to force people to be more like an ideal Christian, striving for a body of all hands and eyes, while the feet and ears must change to be truly welcome? And what of those who are wracked with illness or grief, who seem to have little to contribute to the body but their suffering? 1 Corinthians speaks of them in verses 21-24.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you.” Nor can the head say to the feet, “I do not need you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts we consider less honorable, we treat with greater honor. And our unpresentable parts are treated with special modesty, whereas our presentable parts have no such need.

In her recent book, The View From Rock Bottom, Stephanie Tait imagines a church where weakness is truly valued:

Imagine your pastor introducing a member who is chronically ill and disabled, cannot afford to tithe much of anything, is unable to serve in any volunteer positions, and relies heavily on the benevolence fund to keep up on her medical bills and living expenses. Picture your pastor lovingly wrapping his arm around this woman as he says, “She is absolutely indispensable to this church. We just couldn’t be whole without her."

But there’s another truth buried at the end of this vibrant discussion of community. Verses 24-26 binds us to one another, just as marriage vows do with their promise to love, “for better or for worse, in sickness or in health.”

But God has composed the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

(emphasis mine)

I thought I’d avoided pain by avoiding the specific love of a husband and children. But even as a single woman, I am not an island. My life touches and is touched by all of those I care about, and that means I’m going to suffer and grieve. I am part of a greater community, and that community, at its best, holds me and values me, for the specific person that I am. I love them, and they love me, and that means joy, but it also means pain. It is the human condition, at least on this side of heaven, and I can’t avoid it.

I can still remember the call to also rejoice with those who rejoice. Joy and sorrow are sisters who always travel together. One may visit for a while alone, but her sister soon shows up, too. If we don’t make space for sorrow, we will not have room for joy. And if we don’t make space for joy and love — whether that love is for family or friends — sorrow may not touch us as deeply, but our lives will be narrow and small. My life task isn’t to prepare for sorrow so much as it is to let joy and sorrow widen my heart until I have room to hold both.

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