The recent devastation in Japan was followed, for me, by some difficult news from a dear friend whose family is experiencing a variety of losses. Whether bad news comes from the other side of the globe or from the neighbor next door, there are times when we are face-to-face with human suffering, when we can no longer hide from it or pretend things are okay. These are hard times.
Working as a chaplain at a hospital the summer before last, I found my most challenging work to be with patients who were in unalleviated pain, distress, or discomfort. I sat with a man whose fever required him to be packed in ice, and I kept him company while he shivered and fell in and out of consciousness. I sang to a woman who was having trouble breathing. I held the hand of a woman who cried in pain, waiting for her medication to arrive.
My own discomfort came from knowing that I was helpless. I would have given anything to be able to wave a wand and help those people feel better.
But I offered what I could, and that was my presence. Yes, those people suffered, but they didn’t suffer alone. I bore witness to their pain and offered what comfort I could with my willingness to simply stay in the room. And if they wanted me to leave, I did that too, because it is also a gift to honor what people want for themselves, rather than trying to force what we want for them.
In hard times, it is tempting to try and find a reason for it all. Some armchair theologians (as opposed to real theologians who get down into the muck and grit of real people’s lives) speculate that God “punishes” people or “sends messages” through natural disasters, through violence, through suffering. That’s certainly one way of thinking about the world.
But my guess is that life is a little more complex than that. Sometimes bad things happen because someone chooses to do something harmful to another human being. We have free will, after all. And I think sometimes bad things happen because this is life, and life is full of joy and sorrow. We weren’t put here to live peaceful, contented, effortless lives. We were put here to laugh and cry and struggle and triumph and fail.
And we were put here to help each other, to reach out in times of need. We were put here to offer help to those who need it, and to ask and accept help when we’re in need. Let suffering be a reminder of our interdependence.