A beautiful article in the Boston Globe today tells the story of a woman who is dying. She invited her friends over for a luncheon, a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessness in the face of her friend’s suffering. As she did so, the woman who was dying looked up at her and said this:
“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”*
Through the years, I have thought a lot about a theology of suffering, and the ‘fellowship’ of suffering.
Most of us struggle awkwardly in the face of pain and suffering. We don’t know what to do. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We feel embarassed, don’t want to make the situation worse. And so we avoid suffering; and when we avoid suffering, we avoid those who suffer. Because there are many things that cause suffering, we sometimes end up avoiding the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the displaced.
We subconsciously reason that we can’t do anything anyway. We can’t change the situation, and we don’t want people to feel worse, so we avoid them all together. C.S. Lewis in his classic and beautiful book A Grief Observed talks about becoming an embarassment to his friends.
“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.”
A few years ago, as I was thinking about suffering and a theology of suffering, I wrote the following:
it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.
There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”
So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?
Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.
Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.
The fullness of our presence can offer hope and comfort, and so we must not leave people alone. This is the fellowship of suffering.
“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”**
If you are interested in reading a post that speaks to what not to say to people who are suffering, take a look at Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis.
**from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College