Barb Bash offered this reflection on her volunteer work recently at Sunday worship:
I teach English to a man twice a week, and about a year ago when I first started meeting with him I noticed he used the word “suffering” a lot.
For instance he said, “A woman at the park threw Frisbee and it hit my son. Accident. She kept saying ‘Oh, sorry, sorry’—she was really suffering.”
Once when I mentioned to him that I was really bad at some things—like dancing—he nodded sympathetically and said, “Oh, yes, you suffer!”
After a while I figured out that he understood that “to suffer” means “to feel bad,” and because there are so many ways to feel bad, there were many ways to suffer.
I must say though, the whole thing made me feel differently about suffering—I suddenly saw that everyone suffers. I became aware of the many small aches we all carry around all the time: emotional and social pain, feelings of regret, meanness, sadness, inadequacy—we do all suffer. This idea made me feel more at one with my fellow suffering humans. Instead of a divide between those who don’t suffer and those who do, I felt that I was a part of a world of suffering souls, and each person’s individual suffering then becomes a matter of kind, and degree.
Now, some of us certainly suffer a lot. I stay overnight at a homeless shelter twice a month, and the guests at the shelter—they lack a home, yes, but also are sometimes hungry, wet, or cold, often have health problems, are estranged from their family, and they have little support or encouragement from friends. Not to mention all the other kinds of human pain that I mentioned before, that we all carry around. So, I want to be compassionate—and “compassion” means to “suffer with”—
so, how do I do that, exactly?
Well, teaching English without formal training as I am, I’ve had to teach myself about English grammar, and so I’ve been doing some reading. One interesting essay I read said that, “The English sentence demands a subject, even when there is none.” For instance, to describe the weather these past two months, the past continuous verb “was raining” would be perfectly clear to us all, but grammar demands we say, “It was raining.” It. Nothing happens in an English sentence without something, or someone, doing it. Every effect demands an agent, a cause—someone to blame.
The essay also said that doing is important in English. When we meet someone, we say “How do you do?” and then we ask, “What do you do?” On the altar, we say, “I do!” — And when we see a problem, we look for something to do about it. Our grammar compels us to act in a linear way: effect/cause, problem/solution. This framework can be useful, but it’s NOT a universal way of seeing the world—not even necessarily Christian (Jesus, after all, didn’t speak English) and the essay argues that the grammar of our English language reinforces linear thinking and actually changes the way we think and act.
So sitting at the homeless shelter on a morning, having coffee with a fellow suffering person, there’s that impulse to find the cause of the suffering. Who or what is to blame for this person’s situation? Likewise, there’s a temptation to search for a solution to their problems—suggest a fix, a better course of action. But these linear impulses are not the most compassionate acts.
A weary soul embarking on another hard day might just need a simple moment of safety, warmth, and comfort. So, I stifle my questions and suggestions. Instead I offer up an undemanding silence. Oh, stories bubble up within it sometimes; I might hear about hard times, big plans, small disappointments—but often, morning’s quiet instead.
The profound thing I have discovered is, that it is in this small quiet moment, that a space is made for the presence of Christ. Here we are, two people—two suffering souls—drinking coffee, remarking on the rain, and God sits with us! Jesus knew how to heal with a bit of bread, a touch to the eyes, by calling someone by their own name. And in that friendly threesome, I discover that Christ heals us both together, my own small sufferings also, and we both walk away changed and warmed by the moment. That’s compassion.
So, today my prayer for All-Of-Us-Who-Suffer is that we seek out compassionate moments with other suffering souls, and that we too may discover Christ sitting there with us.
Immanuel, Alleluia, Amen!