(A slave woman named Georgia, in answer to the pregnant, 15-year-old slave Aminata’s statement that the master would not take her baby. From the book Someone Knows My Name, by Lawrence Hill)
Why am I drawn to the sufferings of others? Why the desperate reading of books like this one and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? Why am I compelled to watch this video memoir from the Holocaust and feel sick in my gut with each picture and name of individual people who died, and then again with pictures of mass graves of people, individually and cumulatively disregarded in unspeakable ways?
I go for months not watching even lighthearted movies, because I feel every tension so deeply and empathetically and I see no point in adding vicarious stress and heavy emotions to my life. But, then I sit by myself and watch a movie like In My Country, focusing on the recounting in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the horrors of apartheid. I watch and my heart weeps so deeply, even though only a few tears run down my face. Just like it sometimes feels like I cannot express the things I feel so intensely because words are inadequate, sometimes I wonder if I cannot often weep real outward tears, because they do not seem deep enough to be an accurate expression of the weeping of my heart.
Tonight I’m wondering, Does evil have a roof? I believe it does, even though I am unable to articulate a defense of that–once again the questions you would ask in trying to get me to defend my belief would be impossible for me to answer, because they are some of the questions I also ask. But still, even if you were to call me crazy or illogical I hold on to my belief that evil has a roof. Even that belief raises its own questions, for which I do not have an answer. If there is a roof, if there is a limit to what God allows, why is the roof so high?
There have been times in my own suffering, relatively small as it is among the evils in the world, when I have found great comfort in trusting a God who could say to Job,
Who defined the boundaries of the sea as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and thick darkness? . . I said, ‘Thus far and no farther will you come. Here your proud waves must stop!’
There have been other times I have had terror that the suffering yet to come would be beyond what I could bear, and if so, it was little comfort that God was still in control. I suppose it was still a comfort, but that comfort did not alleviate the terror. Yes, that is more accurate. It was and is a comfort to trust God and to hope in Him, even as I let go of nearly every preconceived notion of how He would act in my behalf.
And now, I am in a situation where the intensity of the pain and confusion I walked through for a couple of years has abated some. There is still a lot of uncertainty, but, slowly a measure of stability has returned to my life.
And now when my personal pain is less intense, I am drawn to the sufferings of others. And I wonder why. I do not think there is one simple answer.
Do I read books like this one because I need to lament the effects of evil in a way that is not only broad, but also personal–through the stories of individuals experiencing the evil?
Do I have a compulsion to bring honor to the sufferings of others by feeling even little drops of what they suffered or suffer now? Is it that I have a need to weep for as many different sufferings as possible? Do I want to read it because it seems wrong to me to ignore or forget or disregard the sufferings of others? (And is it presumptuous of me to think that my weeping matters?)
Am I drawn to the sufferings of others, because it puts my own pain in perspective? What I experienced and the grief and loss I still feel is great, but it is not as bad as it gets. And I am not alone. And I have much to be thankful for. Do the sufferings of others keep my own blessings in perspective?
Has my own suffering made me afraid of being complacent? And so I expose myself to suffering, so I don’t forget that even when I am not suffering, there are many people who are?
Do I read books like this because they help me step out from my own situation and see and look at and feel suffering in ways that are more manageable because I’m not living that particular story? When I can read the story of another’s suffering and my heart weeps, sometimes it feels like a gift to me. It’s hard sometimes to weep for my own losses, because they are so close and so deep–I can feel the loss, but I can’t see what it looks like. In entering the sufferings of another and weeping for them, sometimes I find myself grieving for my own losses and finding words to think about those losses where I did not have the words before.
Am I compelled to read and absorb and comprehend suffering because I need to know how far evil can go?
Why, coming out of my own nightmare, do I need to lament like never before? Why do I need to listen to the stories that others tell of their own suffering, sometimes like my own and sometimes so very different, when, in reality, there is so little I can do or say in response?
Sometimes I think I need to let myself feel the sufferings of others, because their stories give me a bird’s eye perspective of what it means to find purpose and hope and life in the most incomprehensibly horrific of circumstances. I know that is why Viktor Frankl’s biography and writings have touched me so deeply. Reading the stories of his life and the stories he tells of others during the holocaust, and now reading this book about a slave, I see the ability of people to survive the most destructive of circumstances and yet still hold on to something–to life, to hope, to personhood, to value, to dignity, to a freedom of something that is so very separate from freedom from suffering. And, somehow, that gives me hope.
But, also, shaped by Dr. Frankl’s writing perhaps, I find myself weeping for those who didn’t survive. Not just those whose suffering or sickness or abuse physically took their life, but to those whose internal lives and spirits were broken or destroyed by suffering. Weeping because I feel how that can happen. Because dying or giving up sometimes makes so much sense. Even more so, now that I have survived so much. It’s like by making it through without ever totally losing hope, I see how close I was to losing hope. And I see so clearly how not losing hope is not something I did. It was a gift of grace to me–other people holding on to hope for me, holding on to me, not letting me curl up and die. Other people, putting themselves at risk on my behalf. Or when they couldn’t lessen the reality of what I had to walk through, being there with me so that no matter how alone I felt, I could never believe myself to have been abandoned. People believing me. People telling me over and over, “You are not crazy.” People trusting God for me. People trusting me and how I was trusting God, even when the things I needed to do did not make sense. People making it possible for us to make it financially so that I, very practically, could survive.
All of those things, in a strange way, have humbled me. So that now, when I read of someone’s suffering, who doesn’t make it, or who doesn’t choose life, or who chooses bitterness as a response to suffering, which ends up consuming them, I weep with understanding and compassion. My heart breaks because I understand how, left to myself, that could have been me. And I feel like if I had given up and not made it through what I have now survived, I would have wanted someone to weep for me and for the loss of my hope. As I wrote that, I realized something. A big part of what kept me holding on to hope and to life and to God was that someone was weeping for me. Someone else (more than one someone usually, but always someone) was weeping with me and sometimes weeping for me when I was too numb to weep myself. Someone cared enough to cry, and in a way that crying and caring was a gift to me. There is so much suffering around me and so little I feel like I can do to make any difference, and sometimes I think I need to cry about it because acknowledging and feeling the awfulness of it all, lamenting the sorrow of another is something I can give, even if it doesn’t really make much difference. When I hear people speak disparagingly of women who “let themselves” be abused, who don’t stand up for themselves or who endure suffering for years, my heart weeps.
Sometimes I think I expose myself to as broad a scope of suffering as possible because I need to know how far the faithfulness of God extends. It is one thing to sit in my narrow world and say, God is faithful. But, I know the world and the evil and sufferings are so far beyond my personal experience and comprehension. Reading, seeing or hearing the stories of others is a way of feeling my way beyond what I know to places where I can ask, “God, are you faithful even there? Are you sovereign even there? ” I do not have answers. I only know that if I am going to trust God, I cannot do so apart from the realities of how awful things really are. If God is good and His love makes a difference, what does that mean for people suffering great evils?
This is why I crave hearing the stories of older believers. There is so much they have walked through and survived. They still trust God, and they attest to God having been faithful. They are not just saying it in faith as I do, but proclaiming it with certainty because of what they have come through. They speak of things and in ways that makes me really believe and hope that God does redeem even the worst of circumstances and also makes a difference in the walking through those circumstances.
Am I also drawn to the sufferings of others because I’m always searching, always wondering, How can I make a difference? Sometimes it’s hard, because it is like there is nothing I can do to make a difference in the big scope of evil and abuse in the world. But, sometimes, my heart makes connections from what I read and grows in understanding about how evil grows and I hope that the things I learn change my heart, change how I relate to other people, changes how I value and give honor to each person I meet, changes how I teach and train my children.
Here is one more quote from the book I am reading. This quote gets at one of the reasons I am drawn to reading and absorbing an understanding of the sufferings of others–a belief that those who suffer should not do so invisibly. This is Aminata speaking, recounting her response to seeing other newly arrived and sickly slaves on a platform being auctioned as she had five years previously.
I felt my stomach churning, my throat tightening. I looked down to avoid meeting their eyes. I was fed, and they were not. I had clothes, and they had none. I could do nothing to change their prospects or even my own. That, I decided was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn’t matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future.
As she reflects on her response, she grapples with some of her own losses and griefs and begins to recount some of what she is missing at that moment. She ends with:
I missed the nonstop crying of the cicadas, which I imagined to be the voices of my ancestors, saying, We will cry out like this always always always just so you don’t forget us.
I looked up from the street and again at the wretched captives. I vowed not to the let the noises of the city drown out their voices or rob me of my past. It was less painful to forget, but I would look and I would remember.
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