Suffering With

Today was a beautiful spring day, sunny, not too hot, made to order.  I  arrived before 8:00 this morning in order to see my doctor for the weekly check-in appointment, (remember?  He missed the scheduled appointment on Monday and I had a meltdown?)  Oh, right; how could you forget ? Nevertheless…he wasn’t late today.  In fact, he was very prompt and kind.  I told him that I assumed that he had heard about my emotional meltdown.  He graciously remarked, “I heard that you were unhappy.”  I chuckled and said, “You heard I had a meltdown.”  He grinned and replied, “I was told you were very unhappy that I wasn’t here.”

“NO,” I said firmly, “I was unhappy because no one TOLD ME that you were not here.  I had to ask if I still had an appointment.”  (You see how things get translated after the fact??)  He sincerely apologized, and I felt the freedom to tell him that, having worked in oncology before at a cancer center as a chaplain and patient advocate, it was my belief that his staff needed training on how to work with cancer patients.  Seeming a bit surprised, he was open for me to continue, so I calmly gave him two examples of different staff members just this week who were either abrupt or patronizing.  I explained that people in crisis  need to be joined on this road, treated with kindness and respect,  and while mine was caught early, many out there in the waiting room are struggling for their survival.  They don’t need the staff dehumanizing them.  The good doctor promised to address his staff, but also asked me to write a letter to the director of the center in order for systemic change to occur.

But, are we not back once again to compassion – to suffer with?  Henri Nouwen believed this topic was very important and wrote often about it. He said it better than I could so,  let me share another passage from his book The Way of the Heart:

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate.   Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.  But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering.  What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it…This means first and foremost doing something to  show that our presence makes a difference.  And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.

When I worked as a chaplain, sometimes after a rough season of ER calls or a particularly painful death of one of our patients, one of us would break out with some ‘black humor’ so we could laugh to lighten the load and ease the stress of the pain we carried.  I don’t know if anyone remembers the Christian author from the 90’s, Francine Rivers, who wrote The Last Sin Eater.  She had prolific best sellers; this probably wasn’t one of them.  But there were many times when I felt like we were the pain eaters…not that we took anyone’s pain away.  We simply tried to ease the burden of their pain a bit by shouldering some of it.

This is how I think of those who practice true compassion – not the cotton candy, syrupy sweet, “I’ll pray for you,” (as they walk away) kind.  No, the suffering-with kind, the broken- with-you kind, or as Parker Palmer wrote concerning the Quaker circle, the sitting-in-silence-with-you kind.  It isn’t easy; in fact, it’s very, very difficult.  I mean, the disciples failed monumentally…they fell asleep.

This fact alone tells me that without the Spirit within me, I don’t stand a chance at being compassionate because #1: I’d really rather not take someone else’s stuff on, OK??!  I have enough of my own.  This is a narcissistic world, look out for yourself, so who cares?  Well…uh… our Father does.

#2: It seems easier to run away.  In this so-called connected  society we are actually less connected and less intimate than ever before.  Sadly, the church isn’t faring much better.  A small group from church can be the loneliest place in town because who said we had to be intimate in a small group simply because there are fewer people? Hey, we’re great at surface relationships! We ace surface relationships! Why plumb the depths when this is working just fine – saying hi-howareyouI’mfine every week, studying a few Bible verses, saying a prayer and heading out.  Easy…

except…it gets pretty lonely

and it grows a gnawing, empty hole inside.

People outside the church don’t pretend to be suffering with each other.  I think that’s what makes the pretend thing so insidious inside the church; we pretend to have compassion so much of the time and that just stinks to high heaven.   Because when we say we do, but we don’t, we lie and deceive each other and wound one another. Those wounds are so much deeper than the ones we receive from people who are not our brothers and sisters.  I mean, we sort of expect those other wounds, right?  But, as David said, this was my brother, my friend…

Who are you suffering with right now?  Is there anyone to whom you might need  to be showing some compassion?  Just wondering.




I'm interested in what you think!