It’s morning and I am sitting on my porch. The wind is strong, out of the south – twenty knots maybe – and the trees on one side of the cove undulate and heave as if dancing to the rhythm of a silent lullaby. A beautiful day in the neighborhood. It feels good to be alive.
It’s in odd time I confess, but I am thinking about suffering – neurological pain in particular. It has dominated my life recently. I’m thinking about pain and suffering in a general sense, too, since both have plagued humankind from the time of Adam and Eve. Why must it be? A punishment? I think not, but it is a puzzle. I imagine at times it’s a design flaw, like God didn’t think his creation project through as thoroughly as he might or maybe left a wrench in the gears. In any case, suffering is nothing new. We’ll never know why. When we are visited with pain in any of its endless forms, we suffer.
I am now coming out of three months of pain. I write not to elicit sympathy – I do that well on my own. My intent is more to explore my experience to see what it might reveal about being human, and find some meaning in what so often seems meaningless and senseless.
Suffering is a given – part of life’s package. It can be as confined as a spider phobia or a fear of flying. It can be as universal as the loss of a loved one or all encompassing like the mother with her two children living in a bomb crater in Afghanistan, seeking respite from the burning sun and foraging for food and water. Suffering attends many physical aberrations.
As I’ve thought about this in search for some meaning, I’ve found it helpful to consider what happens to us generally in any kind of pain or suffering. Might there be a ‘red thread’ common to the experience of suffering that helps us endure it although not end it?
In the last three months, I’ve had the growing sense that one of the poignant aspects of all suffering is its capacity to leave one feeling alone and vulnerable. I think of the widow finding herself in a world surrounded with couples. Grief is the suffering of loss.
Suffering is as much a part of the human condition as breathing. It’s ironic to consider that what’s so common to us all, can isolate us from one another as well as join us in solidarity. Suffering does both.
Weeks ago, I wrote some reflections about my experience with lower back pain, a common complaint, but it can be a rough one. Subsequent to publishing that piece, I received an email from a man I didn’t know – let me call him, ‘Steve ‘. He wrote to tell me that he, too, had been the victim for years of excruciating pain and like the man in the Biblical epic, “suffered much at the hands of many physicians, but it profited him naught.” He’d tried everything to no avail. After years of searching, and at the edge of despair he found healing. This man understood immediately how I was feeling and reached out.
That he took the time and the care to tell me about his struggle and eventual good fortune touched me. He thoughtfully sent documented information that I could easily access, motivated by his wish that I might find the healing he had. This is a form of compassion. It can mean so much. Compassion is a feeling (often turning to action) that suffering surfaces in others.
I received some notes from friends. They offered thoughtful reflections on my circumstances
A woman called me. I have not known her along time. I knew that she had sustained a neurological injury years ago. It never really healed and for years she has had to endure excruciating and unremitting pain. During her call she said two things, one of which I didn’t first understand. She reassured me that in time I would find the help I need. She seemed confident about that and I welcomed her words. She also said, “Don’t panic.”
I didn’t get it at first. A few days later when the pain came back with a vengeance, I understood. I felt pure panic like there was no place to hide from it. I was trapped and a despondent voice kept saying to me that this will never end. The pain did mitigate some and I then understood what she was alerting me to. There is an atavistic inclination how, when we’re fearful and vulnerable, our mind keeps insisting it will never end.
Her words were simple and direct, without any flourish. They were born of personal experience. Knowing her history, I invested her words with an authority that calmed me. It made a difference. I remember, while we were on the phone, how in my mind’s eye I kept seeing her piercing, unblinking blue eyes that always appeared serene and hopeful.
This is a long way around of sharing with readers a small incident of personal suffering. I offer it with the thought that none of us is exempt from suffering and at one time or another it will come to us. Pain and suffering come in all kinds of shapes and sizes – one size does not fit all, but the characteristics of suffering have some things in common; they often arrive with a suddenness that’s devastating, knock us off balance and leave us scrambling to find some means of equilibrium. Suffering has a way of wrenching control from our lives, leaving us with a heightened sense of vulnerability and helplessness.
I believe that the appearance of caring people during personal suffering cannot be underestimated. In the throes of pain, someone’s caring has a way of seeping into our consciousness, and it has a potent analgesic effect. Pain works to isolate us. Caring works to bring us closer. In the larger picture believe a few caring people can change the world, and have kept it from spinning out of control. Mr. Rogers immortalized just such a thought when, after the carnage at the Boston Marathon, said,” When we’re scared and feel alone, “look for the helpers, they’re always there.” And they are.
It’s now late morning. I feel good although, as always, I ache some. The wind has died down and the trees, exuberant only an hour ago, have stilled. The glory of the morning remains. As I finish up this essay, a squirrel “scampers along past me only feet away from where I sit. He stops, and for a moment looks quizzically at me as if curious about what I’m doing. He remains still for a moment. His tail quivers, he scratches his ear and then off he goes, meeting the same challenge that all of us must – the challenge of living.
Our greatest challenge living is to care for one another.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.