Sunday, October 18, 2009

Random Thoughts on Suffering

Today for part of church some of us debated the existence of trials and challenges. My mind turned to Brother Brigham, second president of the Church. For a man who is as firm and straightforward as he, he does seem to come down on both sides of the issue:

"As to trials, why bless your hearts,
the man or woman who enjoys
the spirit of our religion has no trials..."

"The people of the Most High God
must be tried. It is written that
they will be tried in all things..."

"We are now in a day of trial ..."

"If the Saints could realize things as they are
when they are called to pass through trials,
and to suffer what they call sacrifices,
they would acknowledge them to be
the greatest blessings that could be bestowed upon them."

These and many more excellent words of wisdom are here.

We did reach agreement at any rate that we pass through suffering. And one of the blessings of this suffering is the gaining of something called empathy. The example given was that when you break your foot, you learn to have empathy the next time you see someone with crutches.

I've been thinking about this empathy thing over the last few weeks. It seems that we, many of us humans anyway, do a good job convincing ourselves that we are so thoroughly unique and individual that no one has ever suffered or gone through what we do. Though prominent among teens, turning twenty does not remedy the opinion. We therefore only accept counsel or pity or acknowledge the suffering of someone who has suffered sufficiently similarly to us.

"No one knows my pain." Folks who have waited a long time to find their eternal companion (or to have a child or to graduate or to ...) discount the pain of those who had to wait less for those blessings. My sense of loneliness and not-belonging is greater than yours. My psychosis is bigger than yours. It's a perpetual game of Topper. Yet "charity suffereth long" and despite suffering a long time "envieth not and is not puffed up" - charity neither longs to exchange crosses nor is it proud because my cross is bigger than yours... charity doesn't compare crosses at all.

Even if trials are not universal, suffering is. We all suffer. Some more visibly, some more vocally, but all of us do. Why don't we a) accept others' suffering empathy or b) apply our suffering to others better?

J.K. Rowling had some wonderful things to say on the subject at Harvard's commencement 2008 (here's my summary, the original link is missing now). She started off, "I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates." She then goes on to discuss why we need imagination: it's not just for bedtime stories of wizards, but "it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared."

So the question for the night as I get ready for bed, is: Is common suffering enough? Can we learn to accept another person's love and concern simply by virtue of their having suffered something else? Can we learn to empathize with others to say, "No, I don't know precisely what you are going through; but I know what it is to hurt, and I join you in that pain"? In short, to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, not just those who mourn the way we have mourned.

1 comment:

Desi said...

I started writing up a comment to your post and it got long. So, I decided to post it as a post on my blog! :) So, check there and you can read my rambling thoughts. Thanks for the thought provoking sidestep for my day!