I am thankful for the suffering of others

December 8, 2006 | 16 comments
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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 task—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 course—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.

16 Responses to I am thankful for the suffering of others

  1. Herodotus on December 8, 2006 at 7:57 am

    I met the woman who became my wife rather late relative to the norm in mormon culture. I was initially very intimidated by her. She had a combination of intelligence, beauty, and accomplishment that suggested to me that she would likely be intolerant of my personal foibles. I thought about backing out of our first date.

    In an odd (and I hope non-ghoulish) way I was glad to learn of a personal tragedy that had overtaken her family. Her response to this tragedy gave me a different view of her. I realized that she didn’t hold these accomplishments particularly dear when compared with her family. She understood pain and challenges. It revealed a depth of character and feeling otherwise invisible to an overawed suitor.

    I began to think it possible that she would understand me. Perhaps she could even tolerate my flaws.

    I’m communicating my thoughts clumsily, but I am also thankful for the suffering of others. I agree with you that it can potentially humanize everyone involved. I’ve communicated this to my wife and she seems to understand what I’m trying to say. I hope she does. I love her to death.

  2. tyler on December 8, 2006 at 8:21 am

    Thanks for these thoughts, Jim (and Herodotus). I’ve often wondered why we suffer. That question, of course, has a broad and involved answer, one which I don’t nearly understand. Still, I think you have highlighted part of the reason: suffering can bring out the divinity in our natures. I know some of my most Christ-like moments (which are not as deep or as frequent as I wish they were) have come as I have responded quite naturally to the suffering of others–something in these situations reminds us intuitively, it seems to me, who we are, who others are, and what eternal bonds we share.

  3. Jim T. on December 8, 2006 at 10:34 am

    Why should it take the suffering of others to remind us to treat the like the sons and daughters of God they are? we should not wait until the are suffering to be Christ -like or have Christ like moment\’s. In order to do that we have to see beyond the obvious. Instead of being prompted to pray for someone who is suffering why not just pray for someone to be blessed even if they are not suffering. We pray for church leaders right why not pray for the ward organist?

    These are just a few thoughts that came to mind. what are thoughts that come to your minds?

  4. Your friend's wife on December 8, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Thanks for the prayers.

  5. tyler on December 8, 2006 at 11:47 am

    Jim T.

    I certainly agree–sometimes, though, I think we tend to look inward and forget those who surround us. It would be better, as you point out, if we did not need such reminders; my comments concern my observations of what is, not my ideas about what ought to be.

  6. Margaret Young on December 8, 2006 at 11:52 am

    Beautiful, Jim. Of course, everyone is suffering in some way. As we “make friends” (a rather strange phrase), we become aware of others’ particular burdens and our love for them grows as we yearn to make their suffering less. I love the idea of being called to prayer by another’s suffering. I don’t know much about Islam, but there is something moving about their 5x daily call to prayer. And I don’t know if their prayers have a set form, but the very act of prayer should move us to ponder our common humanity.

  7. greenfrog on December 8, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    Compassion dispels illusions of separation.

    Perceiving another’s suffering enables us to choose between compassion and its alternatives.

  8. Wacky Hermit on December 8, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    I must be a shining example to the world, since the Lord has seen fit to send me a whole load of suffering just so I can make you grateful.

    You’re welcome.

  9. Jim F. on December 8, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    You’ll notice, Wacky Hermit, that I did not suggest that God sends suffering to others “just so” I can be grateful. That an event has an effect doesn’t mean that the event occurred in order to have that effect.

  10. Craig V. on December 8, 2006 at 7:53 pm

    There’s a tension, of sorts, in the New Testament that Jim’s insightful post may shed some light on. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray “Lead us not into temptation”. The word that’s translated ‘temptation’ is a more general term in the Greek and can simply mean ‘trial’. In James we see the same word when he writes “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials”. The tension, then is that we’re to pray to be kept safe from trials, but when the trials come, we’re to consider it all joy. If we look at the sufferings of others, as Jim suggests, it seems to me we get a clearer insight into this tension. We would never pray for someone to suffer. In fact we pray for God to protect those whom we love. When the suffering comes, however, there’s a joy to be found in the spiritual communion and intimacy that come when the suffering is shared.

  11. Tatiana on December 8, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    Thanks for that simple but very deep thought. Pain shared is a blessing.

  12. MikeInWeHo on December 8, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    Something about the wording of the initial post troubles me. Perhaps it’s because I’m on vacation right now and happened to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam today. It left me in tears, yet I was so thankful to be there and share in that place. But never could I say I was thankful for her family’s suffering.

    Craig is right in #10 that there is a tension. Or perhaps it’s just about the words we use to describe this feeling. I’m not convinced that Jim F is truly thankful that his friend’s wife is suffering. I think he is thankful to be allowed the opportunity to share in their suffering through empathy and prayer.

    That sharing, I think, reflects the presence of Christ.

  13. Robert C. on December 8, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    Jim T. #3: “Why should it take the suffering of others to remind us to treat the like the sons and daughters of God they are?”

    Whether or not this is the reason for others’ suffering (per #9 Jim F. is clearly not making this claim), I think there is something profound about other’s lack that spurs me to rise to the challenge of trying to mourn with others, comfort others, etc. I was recently reflecting about how I’ve naturally been much more active and involved in wards that might be described as struggling than in wards that are strong. I think it’s the same issue at play: it’s easier to serve others when others actually need you….

  14. Jim F. on December 9, 2006 at 1:09 am

    MikeinWeHo: I didn’t say that I am thankful that my friend’s wife is suffering. I said that I am thankful for her suffering. I don’t think those mean the same. I think, however, that you and I are describing very similar events: there is something odd about feeling grateful for the effect of an event that one hates. To me, that odd feeling is something like feeling grateful for the thing that I thought I hated.

    I like Craig V’s way of putting it (and his reminder of James 1:2): We would never pray for someone to suffer. In fact we pray for God to protect those whom we love. When the suffering comes, however, there’s a joy to be found in the spiritual communion and intimacy that come when the suffering is shared. I do not wish my friend’s wife to suffer, but something beautiful comes to me from my small share in that suffering, something I am grateful for.

    All, thank you for your thoughtful responses. Most of them have touched me, but for some reason greenfrog’s (#7) stands out. Special thanks to you, greenfrog, for that thought.

  15. Locke on December 10, 2006 at 12:50 am

    It seems that “suffering” or injustice is indispensible to our life here one earth. We know that this opposition is essential to our spiritual journey but it’s so important is every part of our life. It is amazing to me that all my political science classes are obsessed with liberation ideologies; the desperate attempt to make all wrongs right. The problem is that they usually end up creating more wrongs than the original rights they wanted to solve. The terrible history of communism, the results of pure socialism, the extremes of individualism in democracy, and the feverent desire of egalatarianism. It’s interesting to me that as we “progress” we encounter more problems. We know as saints that things getting worse this is inevitable. This is an incomplete thought but I pose a question about the balance of suffering in our world.

  16. Barb on December 15, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    I am probably like most as I can flux from being self-absorbed at times in my life to other times when suffering of others really touches me. I do find that the more I come in contact with people and hear their stories that I have been spared so much.

    I do think it is beautiful when people pray for others including those that are not very close to them. I have been touched when people have told me that they pray for me. Sometimes I think people must be praying really hard because I can feel so blessed at times. But then I feel bad because I am probably not doing everything they expect me to do as they call out for me in mighty faith. By that, I mean that I have not made it to Church. While that would seem an easy task for some, it is a daunting task for me. I hope they are happy for me if I cope better in the circle of my life that I navigate rather than expecting something of me that is like emotional paralysis. There are other activities that render such fear and I do not just categorically avoid Church. I missed my niece’s first birthday, two of my grandfather’s three Memorial services held in a one year span of each other, my parent’s 40th anniversary.

    I hope that is not too much of a digression.

    Knowing that people care does help keep me going. Someone saying something as simple as “God bless” in an email to me when I am a stranger is something I reflect upon when I am paranoid and mad at the world. Thank you , by the way!

    Also, people telling me that they pray for me means a lot and I have local friends in my ward and also people I have met online telling me that they do the same.

    I hope I do not seem like a telathon. If people knew how well I coped most of the time and how happy I can be especially when I do not have to go out in the world, they would probably envy me rather than pray for me. :)