I’m old enough to look back on my life and to say confidently that there are difficult, sad, even horrible moments in my past that have made my life as a whole better. I have a strange relation to those moments: though their wound has long since been covered over, I would never want to repeat them; I do not remember them with anything like fondness or nostalgia. In spite of that, I am in a strange sense thankful for them.
This morning I realized that I have something like the same feeling about the suffering of others. I learned recently that a friend’s wife is having a difficult pregnancy. I think I’ve only met her once, but I have known him for years and like him very much, so my liking extends to her transitively. As a result, in the middle of some daily taskâ€”translating a sentence from Levinas, deciding how to compose a paragraph that others will understand, explaining philosophy to a student, preparing materials for next semester’s courseâ€”I find myself called to silent prayer for them. From nowhere, as it were, a need makes itself known, a need to pray.
That call to prayer, a call initiated by their suffering, does at least two things (which may be one): It does something the Sacrament prayers first do, calling me to a religious life in my ordinary life by calling me to remembrance and to prayer. In addition, it humanizes me: to remember them in their difficulty is to remember that I am a human being tied to them in suffering. (Hence, Mosiah 18:8-9.) The result is almost shameful to say: I am strangely thankful for their suffering.