I met Dr. Jenkins in the hallway of the sprawling Erlanger Hospital on my way from the room of my sister-in-law, who had become ill while visiting us in Chattanooga for my husband’s seminary graduation, to the NICU in the children’s section of the complex. I moved as if in a fog, my grief-drenched, hormonal mind barely processing reality in the wake of the birth of our daughter, Stephanie Jane. Born three weeks post due date, tiny Stephanie weighed about five pounds at birth and was whisked away from me as soon as she was delivered. This same Dr. Jenkins, our pediatrician, had entered my own hospital room just a few days before and pronounced the dream crushing words that Stephanie had trisomy 18, a third chromosome on the 18th pair, rendering her body and mind woefully deficient and incapable of sustaining life. Now, he met me in the hallway with a strange greeting. “I want you to pray for so and so.” Time has erased memory of the name of the other mother suffering the grief of her own baby’s devastating illness or what that illness was. “She and her husband work at the Bethel Home for Children,” he continued. “Okay,” I stammered, somewhat taken aback by his seeming insensitivity to my devastation.
Subsequent conversations with this doctor over the brief span of Stephanie’s life always included this directive, to pray for this other mother. I remember feeling puzzled at his insistence that I remember someone else’s pain, but somewhere at the outskirts of my mind, I realized that he wanted me to know that I wasn’t alone in my suffering. He wanted to keep me from diving deep into the isolation of self-pity and the feeling that I had been singled out for anguish by Providence. It was an introduction to the universality of suffering, an invitation to solidarity with another soul in agony. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was an important voice in shaping the way I embraced my own heartbreak and stumbled through it.
I was reminded of all of this when I read the words of Paula D’Arcey in a daily meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. She told of the torment of losing a child, along with her husband, in a tragic accident and how God spoke words that began to soften her heart and help her move out of the silo of grief. “The pain of loss is not yours alone. Disappointment is the human condition.” She speaks of how “indescribable light fights its way through the impenetrable dark.” When this happens in a life, one enters liminal space, that betwixt and between place where transformation occurs.*
Many people are writing helpful words of admonition and encouragement about how to make our way through this global pandemic. One such voice attracting my attention is Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a Canadian who writes, “suppose that, in isolation, we gain a more profound understanding of what it means to be alone. And further suppose that this understanding gives us a better insight into what others are going through in their isolation.” He advises readers to suffer into meaning. Bulka helps us to shift perspective from the ubiquitous, “why me?” to a better question. “What should we do in the face of adversity?…We have turned ‘suffering from’ to ‘suffering towards.’”+
This is the same thing Dr. Jenkins was guiding me towards decades ago in my own “end of the world.” Suffering into meaning involves the awakening of my soul to the suffering of others, finding ways I can stand in comradeship with those to whom chronic suffering is no stranger, who experience this pandemic as just an added layer to the struggle of their lives. It helps me to honor their pain. Suffering into meaning rouses in me an awareness of a culture that rewards the powerful to the detriment of the powerless, think federal bailout money going to large corporations instead of small businesses that will be snuffed out without assistance. Suffering into meaning means cutting elastic for a business which is making masks for health care workers scrambling for personal protection equipment. Suffering into meaning means sharing a stimulus check. Suffering into meaning means standing in support of organizations like Border Angels which seeks to ease the distress of desperate travelers. Suffering into meaning means praying: praying for the sick and dying, praying for the bereaved, praying for the unemployed, praying for the invisible people of our society, praying for the mentally ill, praying for the prisoners, praying for folks in underdeveloped countries, praying for immigrants and refugees, praying for healthcare workers, praying for religious leaders trying to figure out how to minister in an unprecedented situation.
This is incarnational. The Christ has given us the example that we should follow in his steps. He shunned not the suffering of the world of the first century C. E., refusing to grasp his rightful position as Deity, making his home among the lowly while offering invitation to the mighty. His life carried the most meaning of any human, and he suffered into it and through it, constantly self-emptying. Suffering involves self-emptying, loss of power, relinquishment of position or right. We are being given a taste of the suffering of the world, the frustrating loss of control and the fear of death and dissolving of expectations. The shelves of stores with their yawning gaps where once we saw bounty are constant reminders. This is a new experience for Americans, but in some places in the world, this is commonplace.
Can we in this temporary juncture in time, taste and even embrace this affliction, transcending time and space to hold metaphorical hands with masses who endure with us? Humans are meaning- making creatures. We strive to make sense of things, to assign blame, to find solutions. Can this posture of affinity with other suffering people help us construct meaning out of our present tribulation? Can we suffer into meaning and thereby find solace for our own souls? My experience says, yes.
*Paula D’Arcy, Waking Up To This Day: Seeing the Beauty Right Before Us (Orbis Books: 2009), 51–52, 53, 55. Shared in cac.org, daily meditation, 4-27-20.+